Finding Your Way through the Holidays

Author: Andrea Hug

A Guide for Parents of Grieving Children

The holiday season is here. At least that’s what the advertisers think. We hear “Happy Holidays,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Happy New Year” all the time and wonder if we will ever be happy again. For those of us who are grieving, getting from one day to the next may be all we can manage during this season. 

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Grieving is the hardest and most demanding work you will ever do, and grieving during the holidays demands all your energy at a time when you have so little to give. You are asked to do twice as much in half the time while grieving the loss of your fallen hero. It is a monumental demand. But giving thought to what you might want to do, what you do not want to do, and how those things can sort themselves out is time well spent. Without a plan we might get swallowed up in our grief and blindsided by unexpected events. It is by planning ahead that we will find a way to manage this very difficult season.

When you are grieving, thinking ahead to the holidays can seem absurd, especially since it may feel like there is nothing to celebrate. And still, your children will have expectations, memories, and thoughts about the previous holidays when their loved one was alive and part of the celebration. Children may visualize the holiday as it “used to be” and want it to be the same. However, when you think about it, you know it will be different even as you wish it could be the same. Trying to cope through the holidays with the raw, painful emotions that come with grief often causes anxiety, depression, and anger for parents and their children. Spending time imagining your holidays might help ease the difficulty and increase how effectively your family supports each other.

So, what can you do to prepare? How can you re-vision holidays when you may be struggling to make it through each day? What can you do to keep from being blindsided by all the “should” and “have-to” suggestions that could come your way? How can you help your child through the holidays when keeping your head above water from day to day takes all your effort?

First of all, remember that children grieve as intensely as adults though it may appear differently. Try to set aside time when you can talk as a family about the loss and the feelings associated with it. Feelings of fear, loneliness, sadness, or guilt are common and often unspoken. Your example of open, honest sharing will give your children permission to do the same. That open dialogue gives you a connection and bond that you nurture as they grow.

Help your children recall what used to be and cannot be this year in relation to the holiday. Did your Very Important Person always carve the turkey? String the lights? Light the menorah? Was it a tradition that your Very Important Person always tucked the children into bed on New Year’s Eve? While you may not be able to anticipate every way that person impacted the holidays, remembering previous years might help you to anticipate potential problems. Being aware of the differences prepares you for what might come. When you anticipate those things that must be different due to your servicemember’s death, you can brainstorm new possibilities for your family. Doing so limits the potential for being taken by surprise.

When considering the loss of a spouse who was also a parent, one particular concern may be how you and the children will be included in celebrations with your spouse’s extended family. Many families will do what they’ve always done, with no significant changes. Do that only if it is right for you and your children. Think through how that will work for everyone involved and respond accordingly. If it is likely that you will change your traditions, it is very important to have a conversation with your children about that. Determine if or when the children will see the other side of the family. If it is your former spouse who has died, it might be that he or she took responsibility for the time the children spent with that part of the family. Making those arrangements now falls on you. If there will be significant changes in how the children interact with your spouse’s extended family over the holidays and where they may (or may not) be going, make sure your children are notified and prepared. This is also a good time to ask for their input.   

During the holiday season we usually try to do more than we usually do but have less energy as we do it. Think about what you are able to do this season, then talk with your children and explain it to them. Your children may have ideas of their own to keep things the same or change things completely. Listen to their expectations and hopes, honoring them when you can. If some things are not possible, explain why. If your child is older, perhaps she or he can take responsibility for doing some of the things that you don’t feel up to doing. Perhaps they can string the lights or drive a younger sibling to a school party. Enlist their help and acknowledge their contribution. Also, there may be a neighbor, friend, or family member who can help you honor a younger child’s hope or wish. Ask for and accept help!

When evaluating your holidays, consider your faith tradition and consider how you can incorporate and honor your loved one through this time. Perhaps your tradition has customs about grieving a loved one for a certain length of time. Or maybe your tradition offers a ritual that would help you through the season. You may wish to tell stories, light a candle, or set a place at the table for your fallen hero. The holidays are a good time to share your family values and belief systems and give your children concrete life lessons about these values.

As for the practical things, the holidays can be extremely chaotic. Your child will need to stay on a regular schedule, eating and sleeping a healthy amount for his or her age. If you notice changes in eating or sleeping—loss of appetite, increased appetite, nightmares, bedwetting, or the inability to sleep alone—consider grief as a possible explanation. Sticking to a routine is predicable and can help your child feel secure. Still, a child might feel tension and react to it. Similarly, a child may withdraw, have trouble in school, or complain about imaginary illnesses. This may increase during the holidays when stress is high. Talking to your child about things (and allowing your child to talk to you) can alleviate anxiety and provide a compassionate place for them to express their emotions.  

Finding ways to get grief out of one’s body is very important. Physical activity helps. Encourage your children to exercise to help relieve the stress caused by the holidays. It may be a good time to exercise with your children to relieve stress. Exercise can become a way to express feelings. Maybe a trip to the skating rink or the sledding hill would be a fun way to relieve that pent-up energy. Be creative as you brainstorm ways to “move” through this time. While a younger child shows emotion through play (grieving their loss as they do), older children often find their own ways to express grief. An older child might express his or her loss by writing, reading books, drawing, or listening to music. Encourage them to find ways to get their story, pain, and memories out in the open.

Although there are many obstacles, it is especially important to remember one thing. Children are naturally hopeful. That feeling of hopefulness leads to their resilience. What they need most to get to that place is what you already give them naturally: your love. Responding with frequent signs of affection will comfort both you and child. We cannot give a hug without getting one in return, and those signs of affection are profoundly important ways to connect with your precious child as you find your way through the holidays.

Andrea HugBy Andrea Hug, MaPC, MPS, LCPC: Andrea Hug is the surviving spouse of Lieutenant Christian A. Hug, USNR, a search and rescue helicopter pilot who died in 1993. She holds master's degrees in both Pastoral Counseling and Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in Chicago, and is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She worked for two years with TAPS Adult Survivor Care Team, having spent the previous six years working in hospice with young surviving widows and children.