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Grieving parents share how they make it through the holidays

Navigating the holiday season while grieving can be challenging.
"The big key for people mourning or grieving is that there are no rules that they have to follow," said  Jill Cohen, a certified family grief counselor in New York.
"The big key for people mourning or grieving is that there are no rules that they have to follow," said  Jill Cohen, a certified family grief counselor in New York.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

While the holiday season is often associated with joy, excitement, and meaningful family time, for countless people it's also a time of great sadness. A reported 800,000 individuals have died from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, their friends, family members, and loved ones now facing either their first or second holiday celebration with an empty chair at the table. And in the wake of a deadly string of tornadoes, that left at least 90 people dead, entire communities are grieving not only the loss of life, but a home.

Whether a person is mourning the loss of a life, a home, or just a sense of normalcy, learning how to navigate the holiday season while grieving can be challenging, especially when loss and grief are still considered "taboo" topics that, when discussed, can make people feel uncomfortable.

"I think people don't realize that people are grieving during the holidays, or how jarring it is for those people to watch the joy going on around them," Jill Cohen, a certified family grief counselor in New York, tells TODAY Parents. "Even in general, I don't think people understand that so many others are grieving, they just don't show it."

Cohen says there is no "right way" to grieve, and that it is important for everyone — be it the person who is grieving or the people supporting them — to know that grief does not look one specific way, either.

"The big key for people mourning or grieving is that there are no rules that they have to follow," she says. "The mandate is to do what feels comfortable — nothing more, nothing less."

Even though there is no grief playbook, Cohen says it can be beneficial for people in mourning to be in community with other bereaved people, not only to remember that they're not alone but to learn what has worked for others when faced with the holidays.

TODAY spoke with four bereaved parents who have navigated the holiday season in the wake of their loss, to learn what advice they would have for those who are mourning the loss of a loved one this year. From practical tips and resources, to simple sentiments of solidarity, these grieving parents have found a way to help others during a difficult time. Here's how they manage to navigate grief and the holiday season, in their own words:

Doris Maxwell, 72, North Carolina

Doris lost who she calls her "son of heart," Brandon Maxwell, in 2006 as a result of a pulmonary embolism when he was 24. Years later, in 2019, she lost her only daughter, Archelle Williamson, in 2019 when she was 46. Doris describes Archelle as a glass-half full person who always saw the positive and the good side of any situation.

"You have to do what gives you the most comfort and peace of mind. I learned that I could not be responsible for other people and how they thought about what I was doing or not doing. I'm not one of those people who can fake it, either. My daughter used to tell me, 'Ma, you need to put sunglasses on, your eyes are telling on you.' So I wasn't going to fake anything so someone else could feel good.

I also can't say enough about the support I received. People would talk to me about my daughter, which is what I really needed. It really is about who you have around you and who can see the human in you and see that you need them. I had someone send me a Mother's Day card in 2019, for example, and I was just shocked. It reminded me that even though my daughter is not here, I will always be a mother."

Doris's children, daughter Archelle and son Brandon.Courtesy Doris Maxwell

Kelly Pillman, 36, from Missouri

Kelly lost her daughter, Harper, when she was 15 months old in 2018. Harper was silly, curious, independent, and a daddy's girl who loved to snuggle and who brought a bright light to her family's life.

"My faith played a large part in my ongoing grieving process. I'm thankful that my parents put Jesus first — that's what Christmas was about. But it wasn't until that first Christmas without Harper that I experienced Christmas for the first time and truly understood the meaning of Christmas. It wasn't until I experienced that hopelessness, despair, and utter darkness that Christmas became this shining hope. Because of God's son, I can grieve with great hope that I am going to see Harper again.

I also started, and asked other people, to buy toys to donate to other children — it's hard when you're buying gifts for people, but you're not buying for your child who passed away. In that first year I ended up with 500 toys to donate. Now, we're officially a nonprofit called Happiness for Harper. I can’t describe how doing for others helps your own heart. It doesn’t have to be big, but try to help someone else in your time of grief because it will really help your heart, especially if you’re doing it in your loved one’s honor."

Kelly's daughter, Harper, all smiles.Courtesy Kelly Pillman

Liz Boenig, 65, Texas

Liz lost her only child, Miles, in 2004 from a prescription drug overdose at age 21. Miles loved nature and, in high school, was very interested in computers. In Miles's honor, Liz keeps up with today's technology something she knows Miles would have loved.

"The anticipation of the holiday season can actually be worse than the holiday itself. So I'd say just focus on getting through one day at a time, and don't feel guilty about taking care of yourself in whatever way makes sense to you, whether it's putting up a tree or not, sending Christmas cards or not. You can leave home and go on a vacation, or you can stay. You just need to give yourself a path.

I'd also say to try and build community with others who are grieving. I didn't find Bereaved Parents of the USA until five years after Miles died. I felt like I had so much pain myself I couldn't listen to someone else's. But I found out it's really, really nice to be around people who have experienced loss. And that kind of got me plugged into Bereaved Parents and helping other people the way people had helped me."

Liz's son, Miles, giving her a birthday hug. Courtesy Liz Boenig

Kathy Corrigan, 74, in New York

Kathy lost her middle son, Michael, in 1995 when he died suddenly in his sleep at 21 years of age. Years later, in 2019, Kathy lost her youngest son, Christopher, from complications due to alcoholism. Michael was a typical middle child shy with a wonderful sense of humor. When he spoke up, people listened because he was sure to say something pithy or funny. Christopher was a great student who charmed his way through life and who had his dad wrapped around his finger.

"I used to be the president of Bereaved Parents of the USA, an organization near and dear to my heart because it was such a lifeline for me — to have other people understand what I was going through. I don't quite understand it, but when you tell your story and have other people further along in their grief process nod their heads in solidarity, it just helps. And honestly, I think what's even more helpful is reaching out to more newly bereaved parents, because somehow I could come out of my grief enough to help someone else.

Journaling also became a powerful way for me to get my feelings out. I never kept a journal before Michael died, but I instinctively just started writing things down. I had no one to talk to. It was hard to talk to my husband, because he was sad too and I didn't want to bring him down if he was having a good day. And it wasn't anything huge either — I didn't write pages I just wrote a couple of sentences. And what I discovered is that after a few months, I could go back and see how much progress I was making in terms of getting back on my feet. I didn't think I was getting better, but I could see that I was."

Kathy pictured with her three sons during a family Christmas celebration.Courtesy Kathy Corrigan

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief during the holiday season, you can visit Whats Your Grief and the Bereaved Parents of the USA for support and additional resources.