Kaiden Ott, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect when he was born, loved every moment of every day, but especially the holidays, according to Velicia Ridner, his mother.
Trimming the Christmas tree brought him joy and delight. Kaiden also had a special place in his heart for superheroes, and last year – the last Christmas Ridner would spend with her son – his tree was adorned with Iron Man decorations.
Kaiden “gained his wings” in June, said Ridner. He was 4.
And while this Christmas is tough for Ridner, she is keeping Kaiden’s memory alive, and the support she has received from family and friends has helped her deal with the grief a little bit easier.
Several weeks ago, Ridner took Kaiden’s Christmas tree out of the box and started adorning it with some of his favorite ornaments – mostly superhero characters.
When she posted a picture of the tree on Facebook, friends, family and community members – more than 100 people – sent ornaments, many of them personalized to include Kaiden’s name and his favorite characters.
“This year, I decided to put up the tree again, in Kaiden’s honor,” Ridner said. “I thought we could add his favorite decorations and things that would remind us of him.
“This is the same tree he had for the last two years, and he and his brother, Christopher, would pick the colors and decorate it together.”
When Ridner posted a picture on Facebook, her friends wanted to send decorations.
“One person said, ‘I would like to add an ornament to the tree,’ and then another, and before I knew it, there were many people,” she said. “Last year, the theme was Iron Man, so I decided to do Spider-Man this year.”
Gestures that show Kaiden is remembered help Ridner through the mourning.
“Kaiden had a personality bigger than himself,” Ridner said. “He was really charismatic, loving, always happy and smiling – no matter what he went through, he was always smiling. And that was one of the things that really inspired other people. He was a fun-loving kid, who loved music – his favorite band was Imagine Dragons.”
He loved a mohawk hairstyle and “was just a cool kid,” added Ridner.
The last several months have been extremely difficult for Ridner, and she has felt Kaiden’s absence more intensely during the holidays.
“I miss his presence in the house,” Ridner said. “He was always running, and as soon as he would wake up, he would be off and going. He was always the comedian. He always wanted to make me laugh. I miss his arms – he always had his arms around me – and I miss his voice and his laugh.”
Dealing with grief
Her faith and the support from family, friends and the community have helped Ridner.
“It makes it easier,” she said. “If you deal with grief, it’s always important to surround yourself with people who care for you. You can’t do it by yourself.”
When people share their memories of Kaiden with her, it also helps.
“I want people to talk about him,” Ridner said. “Some people want to stay away and don’t want to talk about him because they know it will make me emotional.”
But parents who have lost their children want to hear their children’s names, she added.
“They don’t want their children to be forgotten,” Ridner said. “And Kaiden is definitely one for the books and shouldn’t be forgotten. I love when people talk about him and share the memories they have.”
Often, grieving parents feel as if they are a “burden” on others because of their sadness. Mourning parents sometimes try to keep their emotions to themselves to avoid causing unhappiness to others.
But those emotions and the memories they have with their children will be forever cherished, said Ridner.
Turning grief into service
Ridner hopes to turn those memories into a force helping families in tough situations.
She plans to launch an annual fundraising event helping children fighting for their lives.
“I want to do things in Kaiden’s honor,” Ridner said. “I want to do things to keep his memory in a way that blesses others because that’s what Kaiden was about – he loved people. He wanted others to smile.”
Creating new traditions
Advanced Practice Nurse David Statum encouraged those who are grieving to create traditions that would honor their loved ones.
Statum is a mental health professional serving as a coordinator for family treatment court, a program under the umbrella of the Coffee County Drug County Foundation.
“The holidays can be really, really happy, or they can be really tough for people,” said Statum.
People always expect the holidays to be perfect, and that can intensify the pain, said Statum.
“Grief can be caused by different reasons,” Statum said. “It may be the death of someone you love, or maybe this year you couldn’t afford to buy what your child wanted, and you feel bad about that.”
Showing understanding and providing support is essential during the holidays and it can really relieve someone’s sadness, said Statum.
“We just need to be here for each other, help each other and be sensitive to the fact that sometimes holidays are not fun,” Statum said.
One way to deal with the loss of a loved one is to come up with a tradition that will keep the shared memories alive.
“I used to always make the turkey and dressing for Thanksgiving with my grandmother,” Statum said. “She taught me how to do it the way she did it. And I still make that dressing every year for my family. My grandmother has been gone for 19 years now, but every holiday, I think about her.”
“Over time, it still hurts, but it hurts better,” Statum added. “It hurts and you acknowledge that, but as time goes on, you are able to adapt and come to peace with the fact your loved one is not here. It helps me to know that my grandmother is in heaven, and she is not in pain anymore.”
Helping others helps
One of the ways to deal with grief is by giving back, said Statum.
“Do something to help people,” Statum said.
Statum learned that from his grandmother.
“She didn’t want anybody to be hungry and to not have a family,” Statum said. “She raised just about everybody in the neighborhood. She fed kids, and she clothed them. She made sure they had what they needed. Someone always needs you, and everybody has something to offer.”
According to www.psychologytoday.com, it’s important to realize that grief is part of healing.
Experiencing the pain – rather than trying to escape from it – can help you feel better.
Set healthy boundaries. If an event is likely to bring too many painful memories, avoid it.
Planning ahead is also useful. For example, have an “escape plan” for some events that may not be very enjoyable. Knowing you can leave at any time can help you enjoy the activity much more.
Know that feeling a wide range of emotions – joy, guilt or sadness – is normal. Don’t judge yourself and think you should be happy and laughing most of the time.
Find a special ways to memorialize someone. There are various ways, from lighting a candle every night or eating your loved one’s favorite food.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling with the holidays. Share your feelings with family and friends, but also you may want to reach out for more support.
Look for support groups or contact a professional counselor to help you deal with your grief in a healthy manner.
Elena Cawley can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.