How to cope with the holidays after perinatal loss

by Claudia Ravaldi

After a loss, especially after a perinatal loss, which is characterized by the painful dearth of memories, lives of bereaved parents are filled with a long series of “first time without”: all the things we could have/would have done with our children, but didn’t.

“First times without” are scary, they are angry, they are sad, they often do all three, because they shove in our faces with great violence what we wanted and what will not be. Among the fiercest “first times without” we find the holiday season, which worries grieving parents for entire weeks.

The first year of perinatal bereavement is an intense transformative workshop: everything that happens is new, even if we have experienced it a hundred times before. Vacations, public holidays, workdays, dinners with friends, every experience requires us to make an effort to adapt, which, although it may seem small on the outside, actually costs a lot of energy (be kind and generous to yourself).

After the loss, the way we look at the world also changes for some time: suddenly many experiences of our previous life seem untenable and impractical, even those we used to enjoy very much. It can become a problem to be in crowded places filled with pregnant women or small children, it can be a problem to meet friends to celebrate an anniversary (birthday etc), it can be extremely tiring to go out for an outing.

WARNING: this change is transient and not permanent; sooner or later we will return to the enjoyment of certain situations and recurrences. Taking pleasure in going out with friends is an important end point for grieving, and you get there gradually. Forcing ourselves and trying to speed things up is not a winning move, because it increases the stress load we already suffer after the loss.

Grieving is a journey, a transit from loss to inner rebirth, that engages all our energies for many months (minimum 6 maximum 18, some studies say, others say up to two years, still others up to three; in short, almost a bachelor degree…).

The path of processing is done by accepting to walk on the parallel road where we find ourselves after the loss, one step after another: no matter how hard we try, no matter how much people ask us, we often fail to return to the main road, which seems distant, chaotic, hostile, even. And the more people around insist, the more distant we end up finding ourselves.

Therefore, when it comes to holidays and celebrations, it is important to take only those commitments that we can bear, choose them carefully, postpone those that can be postponed, and say no to those that we cannot currently bear: we do not have to justify or even apologize if we do not want to, or cannot attend the company dinner or the big dinner with relatives up to the 4th degree.

It is not others who have to choose for us how we deal with the holidays after loss, because others are not us and they are not experiencing our grief: they cannot know better than we do what we need, moment by moment. We do. And indeed it happens that we change our minds, that we succeed in doing something we thought impossible or that we have to cancel at the last moment because we feel overwhelmed: it happens, it is part of the movements of grief, it is normal, it is not a fault.

The choices on how to handle the holidays can be very different: someone wants to go on a trip and stay away from the festivities, someone else wants to spend time doing charity work at the soup kitchen, others want to spend late nights with friends so as not to feel the claw of grief too much, or conversely they want to stay home on the couch with a cup of tea and a movie.

None of these choices is wrong a priori, none is better than another. Choose your own and seek if possible a common strategy with your partners (possibly without doing psychological blackmail and without using the argument of “relatives or friends will get hurt”: we cannot deal with the neuroses of other adults, we already have OUR LOSS).

The holidays are “first times without” that put us to the test: on the one hand because the contrast between our mourning and the cheerfulness exhibited by others is sharply felt, and on the other hand because when grief has yet to be processed for the most part, everything going on around can amplify the absence of our child and hurt us a lot..

Those facing the holidays close to death anniversary face two major challenges in a very close time: in these situations it is important to preserve ourselves, and to choose with even greater care our commitments and available resources (mind you, bereaved parents of December and January, take care).

Finally: many people, years later, find that they have a score to settle with the holidays, which year after year continue to represent a time of deep suffering (and anguish, anger, sadness): this happens most often to those who have not been able to fully process their grief because they have strived to meet the demands of others without taking into account their own needs and thus have run out of energy.

Many people, tossed to and fro in an attempt to “overcome” grief (which cannot be overcome, because it is not something other than us, but is more like a tight dress that prevents us from breathing), realize after years that they are back where they started: often they realize this because they realize that it all hurts as much as in the beginning, and each holiday brings the same anguish as the “first time without.”

Realizing that grief is still a garble of living pain hurts (often makes us feel incapable), but ignoring the garble makes it worse.

The holidays in this sense are an important test: in the absence of gradual changes, even minimal ones, year after year, they help us understand how far we have come in processing, how far there is still to go, and thus help us take action.

If these holidays are a “first time without” I send you my heartfelt embrace; if they are the fourth or fifth after loss but continue to be as stinging as the first time, I ask you to give yourself a gift and seek good support to go through this grief, and free yourself from this tight dress.

I leave you with the wise words of the poet Ungaretti: we all are in great need, after perinatal loss, of good warmth, and I hope you can find it in the coming days.

Hugs to you.


I don’t feel like
to dive in
in a clew
of roads

I have so much
on the shoulders

Leave me like this
as a
in a
and forgotten

can’t be heard
that the good heat

with the four
of smoke
of the hearth.


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