In New York and Washington, a tremendous number of children will spend the holiday season mourning for parents lost in the terrorist attacks. In our own community, many will be grieving over a loss in their own family, whether it’s a death or other painful, life-altering events like divorce or job loss.
Fortunately, say experts, while loss during the holidays is inevitably difficult, there are things that families can do to cope.
Creating New Traditions
There’s no doubt that losses are harder during the holidays, says John Baker, a grief counselor with the Grief Center at Alive Hospice in Nashville. “It’s a very family-centered and nostalgic time, a time of tradition, so losses can be devastating,” he notes.
When a death occurs within a family, “usually that person participated in the tradition of the holiday season,” Baker says. “When they are no longer there, then the whole holiday season is going to be changed dramatically.”
For Bonnie Walczyk, a mother of three in Hendersonville who lost her husband to cancer in April 2000, decorating a tree was too much to bear last Christmas. “We sat down together and talked about it,” Walczyk remembers. “The children didn’t want to set up the tree and decorate it with ornaments. I said, ‘Why don’t we just go see Grandma and Grandpa?'” So that year, Walczyk’s family spent the holidays with her in-laws in Pennsylvania.
Divorce can also dramatically alter traditions. Nashville mother Linda Bryant says after her separation and divorce, she grieved over the loss of her family’s holiday traditions. “That’s been very difficult for me,” says Bryant, whose teenage son lives with her.
Because Bryant’s husband was Jewish while she was Christian, they celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah each year. Her son’s birthday also fell during the holiday period. “I liked that we had a blended tradition in our family,” she says. “I was proud of that. Now that I’m alone, I’ve had to let go of that.” Bryant explains that it was her husband who taught her son Hebrew, for instance, and she isn’t able to do that.
Although it may not be possible to follow old traditions, new ones can be started, says Maxine Schaefer, a clinical social worker with Family and Children’s Services in Nashville. It’s often a good idea to incorporate some of the old into the new, she notes. For instance, if a loved one has died, family members could discuss their memories of that person or continue cooking a special dish that person used to prepare.
Bryant says this holiday season, she’s actively going to try to develop some new traditions she and her teenage son can share. She’s recently started going to a new church and is looking for some inspiration there.
Walczyk says her family will spend Christmas at home this year. They’ll try to resume some of their old traditions, like decorating the tree, although it will of course be different without her husband’s involvement. “We’ll try it this year, as long as it feels OK,” she notes.
Try to Have a Plan
Alive Hospice’s Baker says it’s important for a grieving person to keep expectations for the holidays reasonable. “The holidays add that extra element of pressure, the expectation for a lot of joy and happiness, when you may be feeling anything but,” he explains. “A parent may not feel like doing anything. Their grief may be so acute, they don’t know how they’re going to pull this off.”
“I had to go out to do some shopping before Christmas,” Walczyk says, “I went into the department store and smelled the perfume. I knew I was never going to see perfume in my stocking again from Tom. I couldn’t even get out of the store before I started crying. I called Alive Hospice and talked to someone there and found out that was a very typical response.”
As well as Christmas being difficult, Walczyk says: “New Year’s Eve was tough. When our oldest son was in first grade, my husband and I started letting the kids stay up and celebrate. We’d talk about what we’d done during the past year and our dreams for the next year. This past year, we stayed up, but the dreams for the next year were missing.”
Baker says a good idea, if children are old enough, is to sit down and explore with them what’s really important during the holiday season, and then make a plan. “A parent could say, ‘Let’s talk about what kind of Christmas we want,'” he suggests. “Try and have a plan. Don’t wait until the holidays arrive to make it up. Ask things like, ‘Are we going to stay home? If we are, what are we going to do? Are we going to have a tree? What are we really up for?'”
A parent should not be hesitant to ask for help in accomplishing the plan, Baker says. This includes asking family and friends, “anybody and everybody,” he notes. Don’t feel reticent to ask for professional help, either, if emotions seem to be getting out of hand.
Is it OK for a distraught parent to show deep emotion in front of the children? Baker says yes. “The child may respond with a sense of, ‘What’s wrong?’ and that’s a golden opportunity for the parent to let the child know, ‘I’m OK, you don’t have to worry. I’m just sad about Daddy being gone.’ It’s a reassuring kind of thing.”
“My children know it’s OK for any of us to cry at any time,” explains Walczyk. “I’ve told them they should not feel bad about bursting out with tears about their daddy. I told them, ‘It’s like a tea kettle. You have to release the pressure.’ So now we call it the tea kettle.”
Undeniably, losses often bring about reduced economic circumstances, whether that’s due to a death, divorce or job loss. This can be especially difficult during the holidays, with all of the emphasis on its material aspects.
Schaefer at Family and Children’s Services says it’s important to sit down with children, explain the situation to them and find out what’s really important to them for the holidays. “Children can live with reality much more than we give them credit for,” she says. “The most valuable thing you have to give your child at the holidays is structure, routine and family stories. It’s interaction that defines relationships and that’s what kids are going to remember, not how much gifts cost.”
Bryant says that after her divorce she could no longer afford the kind of expensive holiday gifts that she did when she was married. “With the divorce came a loss of lifestyle,” she says, which was difficult for her family to deal with.
But it’s had a positive side in some respects, she adds. “Before, I used the Christmas spirit to buy presents. Now, since I have less money, I’m more likely to write a letter and enclose a poem or a picture with it.”
Walczyk notes, “My children know what really matters and what things would be nice, but don’t really matter. I told them, ‘I’ll never make the kind of money your father did.’ They’ve handled it all really well.”
Self-Care is Important
All of the usual advice about good self-care is especially important for people coping with loss. “Grief is very exhausting,” says Baker, so it’s important to try to get as much rest as possible, even if that’s difficult.
Eating and drinking, too, should be monitored. “Alcohol, caffeine and excessive sugar do not increase your coping mechanisms,” explains Schaefer. “They drain away energy because it takes energy for your body to metabolize these things.” As much as possible, people – especially those dealing with loss – should try to keep up their exercise programs during the holidays. Exercise is an energy booster, Schaefer says.
Baker adds that it’s important to be careful about attending social functions. “To be able to say ‘no’ is real important because people will say, ‘This will do you good to get out.’ But only the person really knows that. They need to be able to say no to something if they really don’t feel like it,” he notes. Last holiday season, Walczyk told people: “We’ll try to come to this, but I need your understanding if we don’t show up.”
“It’s important to understand that (for people with losses) going into the holidays is going to be painful. So pretty much expect it’s going to be difficult,” says Baker. “Having a plan will help minimize the difficulty, and know that you will survive.”
Paula M. DeWitt, Ph.D. is a sociologist, freelance writer and mother residing in Nashville.
Alive Hospice, 327-1085
Individual counseling and group sessions for those who experience a death in the family. Grief counselor John Baker will hold a free holiday seminar on Dec. 6th from 6 – 7:30 p.m. for those grieving over the death of a loved one at Alive Hospice, 1718 Patterson St. in Nashville. Call to register.
Crisis Intervention Center, 244-7444
Group sessions for those who’ve experienced a suicide or sudden death of a loved one, such as the Sudden Loss Support Group and Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Program. The phone also goes to a 24-hour crisis line for those needing immediate assistance.
Family and Children’s Service, 327-0833
Family, couple and individual counseling for those who’ve experienced a loss.
Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee, 269-5355
Referrals to help for those who’ve experienced a loss.
Oasis Center, 327-4455
Telephone helpline for teens to talk to peers or a counselor about issues including loss.