Originally published November 2012.
Special thanks to Jana DeCristofaro of The Dougy Center for sharing this article with us.
It all starts with Halloween. Bags of candy lining the store shelves, fat bumble bee costumes, fake headstones, and cottony spider webs. Halloween, along with Día de los Muertos, are double edged: they are replete with death imagery and they also signal the beginning of the holiday season. It’s the first exit on a fast paced highway that includes stops for Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year.
For many, traditions that were once familiar and comforting can stir-up intensified feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion. For others, the idea of ditching those traditions brings fresh waves of loneliness and loss.
When we are grieving, any day can be filled with thoughts of the person who died and what our life was like before. During the holidays, this ever present remembering can be especially poignant. It happens when seeing the perfect present, writing out holiday cards without adding their name, unpacking favorite decorations, or having to find someone to fill the role of the person who died for certain traditions (carving the turkey, hanging lights, taking the children trick or treating… etc.)
In the midst of these often confusing and conflicting emotions, there are ways you can make the holidays less overwhelming for you and your children. Along the way you may also discover ways to honor the memory of the person who died and create new meaningful traditions in the family. Here are some suggestions, reminders, and activities. Take what is helpful to you.
Acknowledge and embrace limitations. Grief can be all-consuming, no matter the time of year. You may not want to or be able to do all the things you’ve always done. Take time to explore what aspects of the holidays are more challenging than others for you and your children. Once you know which elements of the holidays are creating stress for you and your family, consider where you might be able to scale back or change. This might include shopping, decorating, sending cards, negotiating family dynamics, or traveling. Sometimes it can feel wrong or scary to say no to things you have said yes to in the past, but give yourself permission to make the best choices for yourself and your kids this year.
Consider and celebrate different feelings and preferences. Just as grief is unique for everyone in your family, so are their wants and needs during this time. Involve your children in discussions about what they would like to do. Talk about traditions they love and want to keep, as well as ideas they have for changing things. If you have more than one child, you may find that they each have different ways they would like to celebrate and remember. Do your best to honor the way you and each of your children wishes to move through this season. What families decide to do can fall anywhere on the spectrum of keeping everything the same to tossing it all out and doing something totally new and different.
Be informed before attending events. Who will be there, how long is it expected to last, do you need to do anything to prepare for it… etc. As a family, brainstorm ways you and your children want to respond to questions or offers of help from others. Remember, it’s okay to attend, not attend, or only stop by for a short time.
Ask for help, even when it’s hard to do. If it feels right, allow people to help in concrete ways such as cleaning, cooking, baking, shopping, childcare, and running errands. Sometimes we worry about burdening others, but more often than not, they are eager to have an opportunity to contribute, but don’t know the best way to do so.
Carve out time for rest. The holidays can be physically and emotionally draining for anyone, and especially those who are grieving. Encourage children to have times of rest and quiet play, along with trying to eat well and stay hydrated. Don’t forget to follow this advice yourself, even if it just means ten minutes alone with a cup of coffee before your day starts.
Plan ahead. The anxiety and anticipation leading up to the season can at times be more intense than the actual holidays, so knowing what the plan is and what to expect can help to lessen those worries, especially for children. Decide ahead of time what you can and cannot (or want/don’t want to) do and let your friends and family know. For example, do you want to make the family dinner or would it feel better to have someone else take charge? Feeling stressed about sending out cards? Family and friends will no doubt understand if you want to skip that task this year.
Find ways to acknowledge and remember the person who died. There are many ways to honor a person’s memory during the holidays, either by carrying on traditions or creating new ones. Here are some ideas to consider. What feels comforting is just as unique as grief, so choose the ones that feel right to you and your children.
- Light a memorial candle. Consider their favorite color or scent when choosing a candle or decorate a votive. Invite children and other friends/family to share memories.
- Write a card or letter to the person who died. You can also write a card to yourself from the person who died using the words or distinct phrases that are missed and loved.
- On strips of paper write memories that family members have of the person who died or special gifts that person left with you. Loop the paper strips to create a chain. Those who wish can read their memories out loud as they add them to the chain.
- Wrap small empty boxes in holiday wrap. On each gift tag write a gift that person has left you with, i.e. courage, special stuffed animal, piece of jewelry, strength, a skill, etc. Make a special pile and add to it as you recall more “gifts” this person has left to each of you.
- Hang a special decoration in memory of the person, such as a wreath or stocking. If a stocking is used, family members can place memories inside the stocking.
- Buy a gift that the person would have liked to receive and donate it to a charity or social organization.
- Wrap a big box in holiday wrap and make an opening in the top large enough to push paper notes through. Family members and friends can write memories and messages and place them in the box throughout the season. At a special time the box can be unwrapped and the memories/gifts shared with each other.
- Keep a place setting at the table during a special holiday meal. Encourage each family member to decorate the place setting with something special, such as a flower, poem, card or memento.
- Create a memorabilia table or corner where you can place photos, stuffed animals, toys, cards, foods, and any other kinds of mementos that remind you of your loved one.
- Share a meal of the person’s favorite foods. If possible, involve your children in the preparation. Food can be a great spark for talking about memories and stories.
In all of this, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to handle a holiday, only what feels right for your unique family. Some people want to keep traditions while others prefer to do something completely out of the ordinary. Perhaps your family will choose something in between, a mixture of old and new.
A willingness to talk about holiday plans is the best way to start the negotiation process with one another. This is the first step in finding ways to honor and support each of your family members in their grief this season. As you navigate this new territory, please remember to take time to honor your own grief and needs as well.
Jana DeCristofaro, LCSW is the Coordinator of Children’s Grief Services at The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon. The Dougy Center provides peer support groups for children, teens, young adults, and their family members who are grieving a death. The community of support created in each group serves as confirmation that grief brings people together and creates connections that are deep and powerful. Jana is inspired and amazed by each of the participants and their stories.