When Children's Holidays Are Filled With Sadness

There are ways for the family to celebrate the season while coping with loss.

Our calendar year is full of holidays, both religious and secular. In your family, some will be observed, others not, but for those that normally are family events, their approach may warrant some special planning if someone has died or is gravely ill.

In my family, Christmas was always eagerly awaited, requiring much preparation-selecting a tree, decorating the house, and buying gifts. The odor of cookies baking often drifted from the kitchen. Friends would drop by, bringing gifts to be placed under the tree. Having four children, I would always get caught up in the excitement myself.

One year was different. That time I wasn't even aware of the holiday's approaching. My mind was elsewhere--at a nearby hospital where my husband lay dying from a malignant brain tumor. I was grieving his imminent death, and, working full time, I didn't have the energy, time, or motivation to think "holiday."

It was a phone call from my sister-in-law Mary that jolted me back into reality. True, she said, times are difficult, but I needed to look beyond my pain to the needs and wishes of my children. They were children, after all, and it was important for them that Christmas be observed in some way. Obviously, they wanted presents, friends to visit, and decorations.

My sister-in-law went beyond the phone call and arranged a visit. She wasn't coming to see me, she explained; she was coming to give my children the extra attention they deserved. When she arrived, she promptly took them shopping, helped buy and decorate a tree, and all five of them baked cookies. For a short time, there was a break from all our sadness, and the spirit of Christmas filled our home.

All holidays can be difficult when a family is grieving the death or impending death of a loved one, but, caught up in their own pain, parents should not lose sight of the needs and expectations of their children. Children want the security of knowing that some things are constant in their lives. So how do you do this?

If someone in your family has died or is gravely ill, I suggest that you start with a family meeting and talk about the approaching holiday, whatever it is, asking your children what they are thinking and how they are feeling. Look at your family traditions and modify them as necessary. Make assignments to cover the tasks at hand, and let everybody pitch in.

Shopping for gifts is hard because you have to face the stores with all the cheery music, decorations, and merriment. But you have some options:

  • Ask a friend to do it for you. Make up a list of ideas or ask for suggestions.
  • Shop using catalogs or the internet.
  • Give gift certificates or checks. Older children, in particular, like the freedom to make their own selections.
  • Plan a single gift for the whole family, like a trip to a theme park, but get some small gifts so there will still be "presents" to open.
  • Ask your children for ideas or have them do a "wish" list.
The next decision will be to determine, with your children, whether to include a deceased loved one in the holiday observance--and how to do that.Your family may have divided feelings about this, and compromises may be needed. Ask them what they would be most comfortable doing. Here are some suggestions:
  • Prepare and serve your loved one's favorite food.
  • Have each guest share a cherished memory. Videotape or record these memories on a cassette recorder. A variation might be to have your children interview each guest, recording the exchange on film or tape.
  • Have a bouquet of carnations available to hand each departing guest a flower that can be pressed and saved in honor of your loved one.
  • After the main holiday meal, bring out old magazines, poster board, scissors, and glue, and invite people to make collages in memory of the person who died. (Instruct participants to cut out pictures or words that best describe their memories of the deceased.) One large collage could be constructed or, better yet, individual ones. I find that children love to do these and are very interested in the memories of others.
  • Place a photograph of the deceased in a special place, decorated in keeping with the current holiday.
Seeing to your children's needs is important, but it is also important that you take care of yourself.Grief is stressful and exhausting. Holidays are stressful and exhausting. Combined, they can be overwhelming. Some of the following may help:
  • Pace yourself. Don't take on too much. Simplify your plans or delegate tasks to other family members or friends. No doubt they all want to help but need your guidance.
  • Take time to do something for yourself: a walk in the park, time out for a cup of special coffee or tea.
  • Skip the dishes and continue reading another chapter in the book you have started.
  • Too many cards and notes to send? Don't. You can pick it up next year. People will understand.
  • Get your hair or nails done.
  • Work out at a gym.
  • Get a massage.
  • Make sure you get enough rest. Take a nap.
In times of great anxiety or grief, holidays may seem dispensable. But in the interest of your children and yourself, a little forethought can make them not only tolerable but a source of comfort and shared love. Your children have only one childhood, and when it's over, it's over. A death in the family is bound to change what they have left of their childhood, but with your help they can continue to enjoy the things that make the growing-up years so special.

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Helen Fitzgerald
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