December was always going to be a tricky one for me to navigate since losing Alex, it’s the month after we lost him and when the whole world seems merry and full of cheer I couldn’t feel further from it. To help me cope this year I took part in a wonderful idea from Jess at The Legacy of Leo blog (go have a snoop here, she’s really wonderful!). Last year Jess & her wife did an Advent for Leo to ease them through December and include their son Leo in the festivities, this year they very kindly opened up the idea to allow other bereaved families to participate and remember their little ones. The idea is beautifully simple, its an alternative kind of advent and every day throughout December you plan to do something to remember your baby, or indeed any loved one who you’re missing at Christmas time; it could be an act of kindness, attending a memorial service, an act of self-care, or something as simple as lighting a candle. The idea is as big as your love and imagination allows it to be.
For me, the 1st December marked a year since Alex’s funeral and it hit hard. Harder than I could ever have anticipated. Throughout November I had been remembering my time with Alex a year ago, the final days of pregnancy, those words, his birth, the times we had visited him and the things we had done to make memories. It had been an emotionally draining month but the constant reflection helped me feel closer to him at a time when we’d physically never been further away from each other. I found Alex’s funeral a relief at the time, we’d had over 3 weeks of living in limbo, stuck between our three children, two very much alive and needing our attention and one who needed us for nothing but who we desperately needed to savour every second with. This surreal period allowed us the time to gently prepare ourselves, so that when the time eventually came to say goodbye we were ready for it.
But that’s the thing with grief, there is no rhyme or reason. The stormy seas can come at any time and without any warning. I’d survived Alex’s first birthday and November by pre-empting the sad days and planning in plenty of distractions but I’d disregarded the 1st of December. It turned out to be a crisp, clear and frosty day exactly like it had been a year ago and I felt like I was right back there, dressed in black and silently screaming on the inside. Those memories of watching my husband carry Alex’s tiny coffin into church and through the church yard whipped the air from my lungs and made my chest ache with sadness. The tears didn’t stop all day and for the first time in a long while, finding my brave face proved extremely difficult. Definitely not the start to December and the run up to Christmas that I had anticipated. But as we all know, life sadly goes on in spite of our loss, so I got ready and took homemade star biscuits into work for my colleagues, my very first Advent For Alex activity. It wasn’t a magical cure to my sadness on that day, nor did it stop the tears but it felt good to include Alex in a positive way and create a happy memory alongside the sad ones from last year.
Since then we have done something every day to include, remember and honour Alex and it has warmed my heart in so many ways. There have been 25 in total so I won’t list them all but some of my favourites were posting Christmas cards to elderly people living in our local area and giving out candy canes to strangers. We’ve adopted a donkey, donated to a food bank, dedicated a star and a light to Alex. In amongst that there was some self care which included a festive afternoon tea, a Christingle service at church and a craft evening at my local SANDS meeting. We decorated Alex’s grave for Christmas and our own Christmas tree in lots of Alex related decorations. Feeling inspired a friend even did a ‘12 days of Christmas’ for Alex and in the 12 days before Christmas she gave a total stranger a candy cane each day and told them Alex’s story, one of these people had also experienced a stillbirth over 40 years ago. What was so lovey about Advent for Alex was how we have been able to include Alex’s brothers and give them ways to remember their little brother. They both lit candles at his grave on Christmas Eve so that Father Christmas could find him and William now wants to hand out a candy cane to pretty much every person we meet!
I heard a lovely analogy of grief the other day, one which I’ve not heard before. It compared grief to a tennis ball and a jar. Our lives as newly bereaved parents were likened to a tennis ball (our grief) being put into a small jam jar (our lives). At first there is no space in the jar, no room to breathe or move without being reminded of our grief. People often think that in time the ball of grief will shrink, giving us more space in the jar and making us less aware of it, when actually the opposite is true and the ball stays the same size; grief is a product of our love and our love will never diminish or lessen. Which means that the task in hand is to expand the jar, to build a bigger life around our grief by living life to the very fullest. What Advent for Alex gave me this December was the extension of dreams on my jar and it felt nothing but truly wonderful! Excluding Day 1 I’ve felt so fulfilled and content, we think of Alex everyday but to physically do something in his name each and every day has been a balm to my aching heart. He’s played a bigger part in our Christmas than I ever thought possible and as I sit writing this, on the very first day of a brand-new year, I can’t help but look back and feel like we did December right!
It’s been so wonderful to see how other families have interpreted their grief into their own Advent’s To Remember online, the Instagram community has felt so hopeful and I’ve looked forward to seeing what other parents have done for their advents each day. There have been some fantastic ideas that I would love to try next year (of course we’re doing it again!). I can’t thank Jess enough for giving me a focus and an outlet for my grief and love this December, Advent To Remember has pulled me through a pretty tough season for anyone missing a loved one and it’s given me plenty of smiles and happy memories to cherish.
I hope you all had a gentle and peaceful Christmas and New Year.
Rachel & Alex xx