The Gift List - An Activity for the Whole Family

Depending on your cultural traditions and where you live in the world, December might bring cold weather, shorter days, end of year holidays, and a lot of pressure, especially for those who are grieving. In our last newsletter, we shared our Holiday Plan and Worksheet that many families use to figure out how they want to celebrate, if at all, now that their family is dealing with an illness or death of someone they love. New Year’s is another holiday that can be challenging, so if you or someone you know is starting to wonder how to approach it, this article includes suggestions for setting intentions around grief and self-care.

If your December usually involves gift-giving, grief can add a layer of complexity, turning shopping and wrapping into terrain rough with intense missing and heartache. It can be painful to come across a gift that would be perfect for the person who died or realize someone with an advanced serious illness is no longer able to go shopping with you or buy for others. As a way to help with this time of year, we created an activity for grieving children, teens, and adults called The Gift List. It’s one you can do if even if you or your family don’t exchange gifts or celebrate December holidays. What’s great about this activity is it can be done together or separately, allowing children and teens to choose how public or private they want to be. It’s low maintenance too in terms of materials. The simplest version only needs a piece of paper and something to write with, but you can get as creative and elaborate as you want.

The Gift List invites people to think about and record the gifts they’ve received from someone who has died or is facing an advanced serious illness. These gifts might be tangible items (my skateboard, a video game, earrings, etc.) or something more abstract like a hug, a skill (how to tie my shoes), or a life lesson (always tell the truth). They could also include experiences (taking me to get my haircut), feelings (he brought such joy to every interaction), or a characteristic they’ve passed on (curly hair, smile, sense of humor). There are lots of ways to record these, so choose what works the best for you and your family.

Here are some options to consider:

  • Everyone writes their own list on a separate piece of paper. People can read their lists to one another or keep them private and perhaps put them in a special place like a favorite book, under their pillow, or in a memory box.
  • Spread out a big piece of paper on the floor or a table to write or draw on. You could do it as a group or leave it out for people to fill in as they feel ready or inspired. The paper can be hung up for everyone to see or folded up and kept someplace they can take it out and look at on their own.
  • Handout index cards or strips of paper for people to write their gifts on. Then choose something like a box or an envelope for people to put their papers in. Some families cut a hole in the box and then wrap it like a present. Decide together what to do with the box. One family took one strip out every day of the month and read it aloud before a meal. Another added strips of paper throughout the month and then passed the box around at a special gathering with people reading them one by one.

What you do with the gift lists or strips of paper is up to you, just be sure to include any children and teens in the decision process. Another good reminder is to let everyone know they can choose to participate or not in any aspect of the activity. A favorite guideline in our support groups is “I Pass” and it can be a great one to let kids and teens (adults too!) use during this activity or anytime your family is talking about grief. One last thing, this activity isn’t just for kids and teens, it can be a great one to do with a group of family members and friends, or even on your own. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to make a Gift List, it’s as unique as you and your grief.

As the calendar year comes to an end, we hope that you are surrounded by support and peace of heart. If you need additional support, please reach out to us at

““It is December, and nobody asked if I was ready.””

Sarah Kay