With good reason, holiday seasons are among the most emotionally difficult times for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. Holidays may be difficult no matter what you try to do or where you go. Be gentle with yourself. Below are some tips that may help.
• Traditions are meant to serve us. If one is uncomfortable or painful, change it or create a new one.
• If you want to let the day pass quietly, then do so.
• Emotional and physical strength may be limited. Enlist the help of family members and friends. If shopping is overwhelming, try using catalogues or shop online.
• Parties may be too exhausting for you. Conversely, do not feel guilty for going to a party and enjoying yourself.
• Take care of yourself by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, drinking water, and limiting alcohol and caffeine.
• Communicate with your family about expectations for the holidays.
• Volunteering during the holidays in the name of a loved one can bring solace.
• Set a place at the table for your loved one. You might place a single flower, empty glass, or lit candle to symbolize the presence in spirit of the one who has died.
• Allow time when friends and family have gathered to share favorite memories of your loved one. Embrace both the laughter and tears that these memories bring.
• Plant a tree in honor of your loved one.
• Select an heirloom of your loved one and pass it on to someone else.
• Write notes about your loved one and put them in a stocking. You may have a special message or some unfinished business that it is important to express. Then you may share them, keep them private, or surrender them to the ashes in the fireplace as a ritual of healing.
• Set limits for yourself. Do only as much as you can manage.
• Grief is a physical experience for children. Lighting candles, drawing pictures, decorating photos, making food, or contributing in some way to the overall ritual can be helpful.
You may want to have a tribute to the one you love. Gather family and friends to share in this loving tribute. Select 5 people, each to read one passage:
“As we light these candles in honor of you, we light one for our grief, one for our courage, one for our memories and one for your love.”
LIGHT FIRST CANDLE: “The light of this candle represents our grief. The pain of losing you is intense. It reminds us of the depth of our love for you.”
LIGHT SECOND CANDLE: “The light of this candle represents our courage to confront our sorrow; to comfort each other and to change our lives.”
LIGHT THIRD CANDLE: “This candle is a light to all of our memories of you. To the times we laughed, the times we cried, the times we were angry with each other, the silly things you did, the caring and joy you gave us.”
LIGHT FOURTH CANDLE: “This candle is the light of our love. As we enter this holiday season, we cherish the special place in our hearts that will always be reserved for you. We thank you for the gift your life brought to each of us. We love you always.”
Coping With the Holidays Checklist
Mark activities that have been part of your tradition in the past with a “T” and mark activities with a “W” what you want to do this year. Share this list with your family or have them complete a list of their own and then compare notes.
Mail as usual
Shorten the mailing list
Include a “holiday letter”
Choose not to send this year
Decorate as usual
Ask for help
Let others do it
Have a special decoration for loved one
Shop as usual
Shop through catalogs
Ask for help
Give baked goods
Shop with a friend
Ask for help wrapping gifts
Exchange gifts later
Enjoy as usual
Avoid turning on the radio
Shop early before stores start playing holiday music
Listen to it, have a good cry and allow yourself to feel sad
Keep the old traditions
Attend holiday parties
Don’t attend holiday parties
Bake the usual holiday foods
Buy the usual holiday foods
Modify or reduce holiday cooking and baking
Go to religious services
Do not attend religious services
Attend religious services but at a different time
Attend a totally different spiritual place
Spend quiet time alone
Visit the cemetery
Open gifts on different days
Open gifts in front of others
Prepare as usual
Go out to dinner
Invite friends or family over
Change time of dinner
Change routine of dinner, such as buffet instead of sit-down
Change location of dinner, eat in different room
Ask for help
Post Holiday and New Year’s Day
Spend as usual
Remove holiday decorations early
Go out of town
Avoid New Year’s parties
Attend a New Year’s party
Have a New Year’s party
Spend time with only a few friends
Go to a movie
Go to bed early
Write your hopes in your journal
Many families who have suffered a catastrophic loss would like to find a way to celebrate the holidays the way they’ve always done them, but they also want to acknowledge that this year, things are different. We search for a way to preserve the wonder and joy of the holidays while adapting to the difficulties that are a reality for us at this particular time. The truth is that some rituals can continue unaltered no matter the circumstances. But many families find that it is important to prepare ahead of time for unavoidable changes, and adapt rituals so as to honor losses that family members suffer.
This preparation can give our children another opportunity to understand the purpose of holidays and to integrate life’s changes in a helpful way. Discussing changes (at an age-appropriate level) with our children also helps them identify and make sense of feelings, promotes positive coping and problem-solving skills, fosters a sense of predictability and control, and builds a family’s sense of support for one another. If your family faces a holiday season in which things will be different from before, here are some ground rules for preparing and planning:
• First, be sure to have a place with adult friends or family members where you talk about your stress and sort out your own feelings beforehand, away from your children.
• When you talk with your children, ask open-ended questions, like “What did you like most about…?,” or “How is it for you when you remember…?,” not questions that children will respond to with a simple “Yes” or “No.”
• Be a good listener—do not judge feelings or thoughts; just listen and say back what you hear to be sure you are understanding correctly.
• Do not require your children to discuss things. After you have offered a chance to talk, and are turned down, let your child know that if he chooses, he can bring it up another time. We are not all ready to talk about hurts and worries on the same schedule.
• Instead of trying to help your children feel better immediately, allow some time to simply acknowledge their feelings and let them know that their feelings are natural given the situation.
With this style of exploration, you and your family will be able to develop realistic expectations about the holidays, so that, as much as possible, you can avoid disappointment. Including the whole family in this planning will make it more likely that your strategies are successful.
• Talk first about what each of you has liked about past celebrations–favorite foods, favorite activities, favorite people, etc.
• Talk honestly (without burdening your children with too much information) about what may be different this year–financial resources may be limited; emotional resources, such as energy, joy, feelings of security and satisfaction may be lacking; or a significant family member may be missing.
• Given that, discuss which of your usual celebrations can or cannot happen this year and, if not, why not. Identify one (or more) thing that the family is most appreciative of; something you want to celebrate, even though things are not the same.
• Decide how you can show that appreciation and/or give to others within the new limits—plan a new celebration, for example. Mark things as important by doing them in a special place or at a particular time. Use candles, or “journeys” to a celebration site; have a particular person lead the ritual. This is a way to honor a family’s life together.
• Discuss feelings about the fact that things will be different. Ask your children how they are coping with the changes at home. Allow your children to express (in ways that are not destructive) a range of feelings, even those that are unpleasant. We all need an opportunity to share pain; this is a good time to show family members that you want to understand all of their emotions, not just the easy ones.
A FAMILY ACTIVITY
We all know that the true meaning of holidays is family togetherness, hope, love, caring, and peace. Still, it is easy to lose track of this in our busy, and sometimes, challenging lives; even harder, at times, to find a way to communicate these values to our children. What follows is a child-geared activity that an entire family can do together. This exercise helps to shine light on those parts of our lives that continue to be satisfying and rewarding, and makes room for hope in our ability to transcend current difficulties. Ask each family member to write down, then discuss one at a time, the following four things:
• 2 ways things are good at school (or work)
• 2 ways things are good at home
• 2 ways things are good with friends
• 2 ways things are good inside (our own hearts, bodies, minds)
Asking family members to work together to plan for the holidays, especially in stressful times, is a wonderful way to comfort and reassure children. It sends the message that, despite difficulties or loss, this family will continue to work together to provide for one another’s wellbeing.
Hospice Austin offers support groups and individual counseling to help you through your loss. Please call 512-342-4784 for more information.
Many of the concepts and suggestions in this article were adapted from Helping Children Prepare for and Cope with Natural Disasters: A Manual for Professionals Working with Elementary School Children, by Annette M. La Greca, Ph.D.;
Eric M. Vernberg, Ph.D.; Wendy K. Silverman, Ph.D.; April L. Vogel, Ph.D.; and Mitchell J. Prinstein, M.S.