We spent our first holiday as parents in the NICU.
It was Thanksgiving and as the big day drew nearer, my hopes of sharing a turkey with all the fixings around my own dining room table began to fade and the sadness consumed me.
I couldn’t imagine building traditions or creating memories in a hospital. What business did I have enjoying a festive meal while my baby lay in an incubator unable to eat at all? Our family wanted so badly for us to enjoy the holiday but how could we explain that we didn’t have it in us to celebrate?
Thanksgiving Day came and I woke up with a heaviness in my heart. Then, in walked my parents brandishing a full turkey dinner; cranberries, stuffing, and all. It brought tears to my eyes. We set up in the hospital cafeteria and the nurses allowed us to bring Mr. T. He slept peacefully in his infant carrier right beside us as we gave thanks for our many blessings. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief because, though it wasn't as I had imagined our first holiday to be, we were celebrating together and that was all that mattered.
The holidays are probably one of the most difficult parts of the NICU journey. It is not where you imagine spending your very first holiday as a family and the last place you want to celebrate. Spending Christmas in the NICU can involve feelings of guilt, loneliness and failure. It can feel terribly isolating knowing that the world is out there celebrating while you are inside suffering.
It may seem like giving gifts are not the priority and it might even seem inappropriate but there are some presents that can make the holidays special for a NICU parents in your life:
Make a planned visit to the hospital. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to have unexpected visitors but having people that care about you by your side during these days can make the world of a difference. Bring them a meal, a magazine, or just some company for an hour or two. People tend to get very busy over the holidays and visitors may start to thin out. Just a short visit can help parents feel less alone and can give them the little boost they just may need.
I loved reading to Mr. T. when he was in the hospital. We kept a stack of books near us at all times. It helps for babies to hear their parents voices and reading to them is such a great way to let your voice be heard. Some of our favourite stories were I’ll Love you Forever by Robert Munch, Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss and The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman.
I still remember the first time I was able to touch Mr. T. after his surgery and I unwrapped his little hospital blanket and saw the Sick Kids stamp on the sleeper he had on. It made me terribly sad to know that he had all these beautiful clothes hanging in his closet at home and the only thing that fit him was a hospital sleeper. When we finally received clothes small enough for him it somehow made me feel a little less institutionalized and a little more like a mother. A gift of preemie clothing could help a parent feel like they have some control in a situation where they don't have much.
Consider making a donation to the local children's hospital or NICU. Most hospitals have charity gift giving options available such as http://getbettergifts.sickkidsfoundation.com// which makes it so easy. Your donation can be a monetary gift or even items such as toys for the playrooms, a rocking chair for the NICU or art supplies for art therapy. To this day it always touches me when someone makes a donation to Sick Kids with us in mind.
When Mr. T. was in the hospital there were so many tasks at home that remained at the bottom of our priority list. Drive by and shovel their driveway, pick up the mail or offer to do a load of laundry for them. It might not seem like a huge gesture but it will give already overloaded parents one less thing to worry about.
The NICU is not where any parents envisions spending the holidays but sometimes life leads us down these unexpected paths. If you have friends or family who will be spending Christmas in the NICU, consider a small gesture to let them know they aren't alone. We ended up creating wonderful memories that Thanksgiving and every holiday since I've hugged my kids a little closer and given quiet thanks for their health.