Help for the Holidays
It starts with Halloween. Bags of candy lining the store shelves, 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 signal the start of the holiday season. It’s the first exit on a fast paced highway that includes stops for Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s. For many, under even the best of circumstances, the holidays can bring substantial expectations, additional stress, and disappointment. For those who are grieving, this season may also be heavy with uncertainty, bittersweet memories, and worry about what to do. Traditions that were once familiar and comforting can stir-up intensified feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion.
When we are grieving, any day can be filled with of the person who died and what our life was like before. During the holidays, this ever present remembering can be especially poignant. Whether it’s seeing the perfect present, writing out holiday cards, unpacking 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 this, 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 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.
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, including traditions they love want to keep and ideas they have for changing things. 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
1. 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.
2. Write a card or letter to the person who died. You can also write a card from the person who died using the words or distinct phrases that are missed and loved.
3. 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.
4. Wrap small 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.
5. 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.
6. Buy a gift that the person would have liked to receive and donate it to a social organization.
7. 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.
8. Keep a place setting at the table during a special holiday meal. Decorate the place setting with a single flower, poem, card or memento.
9. Create a memorabilia table or corner where you can place photos, stuffed animals, toys, cards, foods, and any other kinds of mementos.
10. Share a meal of the person’s favorite foods. 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. Some people want to keep traditions while others prefer to do something completely out of the ordinary. 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 everyone’s grief during this season.