Surviving the Holidays After a Death

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Re-posted from December 10, 2013 (with edits) by Martha

Christmass TreeIt was March, 1970, when the phone call came from the hospital: “Your daddy has had a massive heart attack and is in critical condition.” Four hours away, my husband and I drove the longest trip of my life and arrived in time to see him for a few minutes just before he passed away.

And then, nine months later, Christmas arrived on the scene. I vividly recall sitting down to the table to eat on Christmas Day when suddenly, an ocean of tears filled my plate because of the empty seat next to me. As if there was an “elephant in the room,” no one dared say a word about “who” was missing; we just kept on eating and talking small talk.

As I look back on that day 45 years ago, I have to ask myself, “why didn’t we mention daddy’s name and honor his memory in some way?” I think it had a lot to do with the fact that “no one knew HOW to help one another,” which happens a lot of times during family shared grief.

One thing I know for sure: On that Christmas morning, — “I was in pain.” I would have loved to have taken a break from the pain of daddy’s death just for Christmas, but to borrow a quote from Grief Share Organization: Grief Doesn’t Take Holidays.

Perhaps you and your children are facing the holidays having experienced the death of a loved one this year. While there are no cookie-cut answers as to how to work through the maze of emotional pain brought on by death, children in particular, need extra tender care to help them survive the holidays. After all, it is supposed to be a happy time filled with activities and gifts, but someone they loved dearly is missing this year. What could possibly be “Merry” about it?

So, I am offering a few personal survival tips of my own, as well as a collection of ideas from different sources for you to examine. Perhaps there may be just one that will help you walk through the maze with your child during this holiday season.

  1. Realize it will be Tough: I think we set ourselves up for what I call a “false spiritual high” when we take the stance, “I am going to be okay; Jesus is with me.” Indeed, He is with us because, well because He knows what it is like to suffer the loss of a loved one – His own Son. That is why He is there to comfort you, but remember it is He who said: “Blessed are those who mourn (grieve) for they shall be comforted.” On tough days, talk with the God of all comfort and ask Him to get you through the next moment.
  2. Make New Memories and New Traditions: Things change when your loved one is no longer with your family. That means there might family traditions or extended family get-togethers that you and your children might want to omit or change this year. That is okay. Realize your limitations and do only what works best for your immediate family.
  3. Visit the Cemetery: This is a personal thing for most people. Some take flowers and other mementos; others go and sit and talk to their loved one. Still others might find that going to the cemetery the first year is just too painful. I confess that I could not go that first year, and can I tell you that, even today, I don’t feel guilty about it. I believe survival means “doing what you feel you can do until the time comes when you are able to do more.” Talk with your children and let this be a decision each child makes according to his/her desires, free of any guilt.
  4. Give a Gift to Charity: All of us have a little kid in us when it comes to giving and receiving gifts. Why not suggest to your child that since they cannot give their loved one a gift that they give a monetary gift to a charity in his/her name, or give a wrapped gift to an organization for needed people.
  5. Share Memories: Today, as I think about that first Christmas my daddy was not with us, how wonderful it would have been to have told stories and shared a few laughs about him; after all, he was always joking and laughing. Why not engage your own children in conversations with such lines as: “Remember when ____________ would say this, or when __________would do that? For sure, it will bring on a happy memory.
  6. Take a Trip: One young woman I know with 3 kids and expecting her fourth is taking her children to Disney World for Christmas. Oh yes, she found out she was pregnant right at the time of her husband’s unexpected death. In her words as to the reason for the trip, “we need to get out of town.” (Enough said!)
  7. Decorating the Christmas Tree: On strips of paper write memories that family members have of the person who died. Loop the paper strips to create a chain and hang it around the Christmas tree. (1)
  8. Give a Special Gift to the Deceased: Wrap small boxes in holiday wrap. On each gift tag write a gift that person has instilled in you, such as courage, a specific skill, responsibility, kindness, etc. (2)
  9. Volunteer: Helping other people always makes us feel better about ourselves and should be taught to children at a young age. Around the holidays, take them to a soup kitchen to help those who do not have a meal awaiting them at home, or have them collect toys for children who do not receive presents during the holidays. All of this helps children to feel better about themselves because they are helping others. It also helps them to get through the holidays. (3)
  10. Church, Christ, Comfort: What better way to help your children survive the holidays after the death of a loved one than to give your child the gift of these three C’s. Church gives them a place where they can praise and worship God with a community of others. Christ gives them hope. Your own personal relationship with Jesus is the best gift you can give them, as they see you walking out your faith, along with your pain. Comfort comes from your prayers with and for them and helps de-stress the situation. (4)
  11. Save Time and Space for Yourself: In your effort to help your children, you may have a tendency to overlook your own grief. Plan a time when a close family friend or relative can care for your children so you can have a time and space for yourself to reflect. Also, don’t feel you always have to be composed around your children. It’s okay for them to see your tears, and even ask them for a hug on your down days. Together you and your children, along with God’s help, family, and friends are going to make it.

You might have other suggestion as to how to help a child survive the holidays after a death. If so, leave a comment and share it with others.

Thanks for joining Hannah and me this week. Join us next week when we will be talking about Surviving the Holidays After a Divorce.

(1) The Dougy Center for Grieving Children
(2) Ibid
(3) Bonnie Rubenstein, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education
(4) Grief Share Organization

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