Remembering lost children at Christmas

"I associate Christmas with family time so I do miss Hamish more, if that's even possible."
"I associate Christmas with family time so I do miss Hamish more, if that's even possible." Photo: Supplied

This December 25th will be Rachel Nobel's third Christmas without her young son Hamish, who died in a tragic accident at home aged just 20 months.

While every day without Hamish is agonisingly hard for Rachel, Christmas is particularly difficult.

"I associate Christmas with family time so I do miss Hamish more, if that's even possible," she says.

Rachel with her beloved son Hamish.
Rachel with her beloved son Hamish.  Photo: Supplied

"At the moment, I wish he was with me all the time. I know he would love the decorations, the lights, and the joy of spending time with each other."

The Nobel family, who live on the Sunshine Coast, have created a special way to include Hamish in their Christmas celebrations. "We hang Hami's stocking with the others. We fill it with cards and letters telling him how much we love him, and then my husband takes it out to the cemetery," explains Rachel.

Rachel says that she has decided not to accompany her husband when he takes Hamish's stocking to the cemetery because of the huge emotional toll the visit would bring.

"I couldn't provide my other children with a bright and joyful Christmas if I went with him. The grief becomes overwhelming," she says.

The sight of Hamish's stocking hanging with those belonging to his brothers and sisters might be confronting for some, but Rachel says her family and friends don't judge. "They let us honour Hamish in our own way and they support us," she says.

In addition to the stocking, the Nobel family donates a gift for a young boy to the Kmart wishing tree. This year, Rachel also plans to take her older children to the shops to choose tree decorations that remind them of their little brother.

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These sorts of rituals can help bereaved families navigate the Christmas season while they grieve, says grief counselor Sarah Wayland.

"Ritual and loss are closely linked," she explains. "While we all acknowledge the role of rituals like the funeral, or time away from work after loss, the significance of continual rituals (that happen even years after the loss of a child) can provide a chance to reconnect, to remember, no matter how painful."

Sarah has worked with many bereaved families and says that Christmas is a particularly difficult time of year. "Christmas, or the holiday season, is focused heavily on family time. No matter where people turn we are bombarded with images of togetherness and joy.

"Families facing Christmas with the pain of grief can feel very disconnected from the season, which can lead to feelings of isolation and despair. The focus on what we don't have can be acutely felt.

"Families tell me they never 'get over' the loss of a child; they learn to live alongside their grief. Some days the rawness is less intense but on others it can be all-consuming, even years later."

While the Nobel family has chosen to remember Hamish with a Christmas stocking, there are a number of different ways families can remember their lost child. "I'm always astounded at the creativity and love shown by families trying to navigate this 'new normal' after such a significant loss," says Sarah.

"Some families opt to buy a present for a child in need, who might be a similar age if their child was alive today. Some buy particular ornaments for the tree, or light a candle at church."

According to Sarah, the key for families living with the loss of a child is to find a ritual that acknowledges their sadness. "It may change each year, and not all members of the family might embrace the idea of remembering, but taking the time to acknowledge that loss can provide comfort and guidance for the year ahead," she says.

For many of us, the run up to Christmas can be stressful and hectic, with increasing pressure to give our children the "perfect Christmas" – and Rachel knows that all too well. "I was that frazzled mum trying to make everything perfect," she remembers.

Now when she finds herself getting worked up about the Christmas 'to do' list, she forces herself to take a deep breath. "Children don't need 'things' to feel loved," she says. "They need their parents, present and focused on them."

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