In all our lives there are many holidays or special days, such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and weddings. These are difficult days for those who have lost loved ones, but for many the most difficult holidays of the year are Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since love does not end with death, holidays may result in a renewed sense of personal grief — a feeling of loss unlike that experienced in the routine of daily living. Society encourages you to join in the holiday spirit, but all around you the sounds, sights and smells trigger memories of the one you love who has died.
Holidays often magnify the feelings of grief. It is important and natural to experience the emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of it. It is unhealthy to block those avenues of expression. Therefore, the balance beam of the holidays on one side and grief on the other side needs to be reckoned with.
Children and teens especially experience a wide range of emotions related to the loss of loved ones during Christmas and Thanksgiving. Many parents or caregivers are too overwhelmed by their own sadness and grief to notice that their children are grieving also. For children, as adults, there is no magic wand in overcoming grief. It is a process, and it is as individual as the people going through it. Grief is an unwanted journey. It is a journey that demands tremendous energy, self-discipline, fortitude, courage and a boatload of patience. In the stages of grief there will be ups and downs, peaks, valleys and bumps in the road.
For some children, keeping a journal is a way to facilitate the grieving process. Encourage younger children to draw about their feelings. As a teen or an adult, you may want to write in your own journal. Keeping a journal creates a connection to your loved ones and preserves memories. Keep in mind, however, that what helps one person doesn’t always help another. It was 17 years after the loss of Donna’s brother, Tim, before she could write about him. It isn’t natural to lose a child or a younger sibling. Parents and older brothers and sisters usually pass first. Donna and her sisters light lanterns for their parents, their Aunt Sis, and their brother, Tim, on Christmas Eve. It seems that the sharing of their grief helps them get through the holidays. This January will mark 30 years since we lost Tim. Donna’s dad died on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. Thanksgiving is sometimes difficult for her family for that very reason. The first week in December marks the passing of both my parents. Sometimes my sister, Loretta, and I can talk about it, and sometimes we can’t, even though it has been 38 years since dad passed and 19 years for mom.
Remember that children and teens are experiencing life just as you are. They are not in a “getting ready” phase. They are living it just as you are. Because death and disease are a part of real-life experiences, they will inevitably touch your children and your family in some way, and we must be there to help them.
As a young husband and father, I never thought of a time when Donna and I and our children would not have at least one grandparent to share Christmas and Thanksgiving feasts and celebrations, and now that time has come. We have no parents, and we have become the grandparents. I have also found as I get older, the grief of losing good friends can be as profound as if a family member had been lost. We hurt for our friends who experience losses, sometimes just as if the loss was our own.
As unpredictable as grief is, one can expect that the holidays, birthdays and anniversaries that were important, shared times with your loved one will cause a huge wave of emotion. These events, once anticipated with joyous pleasure, are now painful reminders that your loved one is not here to celebrate with you. Something to keep in mind as Christmas approaches: For many, the anticipation of a holiday is worse than the actual day. It is difficult to decide what you want to do, so think about what you don’t want to do. Discuss your plan with your family. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can ignore the holiday in hopes it will go away. Everywhere you look, you will probably be reminded that this is a holiday season. Stores will be decorated, and there will be holiday ads everywhere.
Coping with the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult challenges adults and children will ever face. Listed below are some ideas and suggestions that we and others have found helpful in coping with the holiday season, as well as with helping our children. Choose the ones that will help your family and take an active role in helping yourself, your family and friends get through the holidays.
• Family get-togethers are difficult. If you think things will be the same, you will be disappointed. Things will never be the same. Undertake only what each family member can handle comfortably.
• There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. Keep in mind the feelings of the children. Try to make the holiday season as joyous as possible for them. If the situation looks difficult, especially for the children, don’t get involved. Set limitations.
• Realize that it isn’t going to be easy. Just do the best you can. Baking and cleaning can get out of proportion. If chores are enjoyable, go ahead, but not to the point of exhaustion. For example, buy the baked goods Mom would make or go without them. That’s what we did the years following my Mother’s death. Mother was a fabulous cook and made everything from scratch. It took my sister four years just to attempt baking the things Mom used to make, especially the Apple Stack cake.
• If you used to cut your own tree, consider buying it already cut this year. Let the children or friends or neighbors help with the decorations if you can’t handle it.
• If you choose not to have a tree, that’s OK, too. Donna’s Mom never put up a tree after the death of Tim, her only son. We respected her decision. Christmas can be emotionally, physically and psychologically draining. Grieving children as well as adults need every bit of their strength.
• Try to get enough rest. If shopping is too much, let relatives or close friends help you. Consider shopping catalogues or the Internet, or issue IOU’s.
• It has been proven that the immune system is compromised by stress, so take care of yourself and your children.
• Try attending religious services at a different time or different church. Some people, especially teens, fear crying in public. It is usually better not to push the tears down at any time. Be gentle with children and don’t expect too much from them.
• Allow yourself to backslide. You can’t always be making headway. Sometimes grief comes in waves. It takes time, and backsliding is part of working your way through grief.
Keep in mind that if the loss has been over a year many people will expect you to be “over it.” From personal experience I can tell you that you don’t get over your sorrows. Donna has said that we do not “get over” our sorrow, but that sorrows become permanent and precious possessions of our lives, and that she will allow her sorrow for her mother, father, sis and Tim to make her better and not bitter. We are never “over it”, but the experience of many bereaved is that eventually we enjoy the holidays again. Don’t say “I know how you feel” unless you really do. These are just hollow words unless you have been in the same situation and can offer suggestions about what helped you to heal.
For more information on handling grief during the holidays, contact me at the Harlan County Extension Service at 606-573-4464.
Raymond Cox is the Harlan County extension agent for 4-H/youth development. Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability or national origin.