If you have recently lost a spouse and have kids at home, you may wonder how you will ever get through the upcoming holiday season. At times you can barely manage to go through the motions of handling the ongoing daily business of raising your family. You want to be there for your children, but you often don’t know what to do to help them. You worry that they hear you crying at night and are uncertain if that is ok for them to hear. You want them to know you are there to protect them, and to comfort them. You don’t want them to feel they have to be careful of expressing their own grief out of fear of upsetting you. Yet you don’t want to push them to talk if they aren’t ready.
You may have found your teenager hard enough to understand and often uncommunicative, even before the loss of your spouse. Now he or she seems to have clammed up even more. You fear that you will overlook important signs that the kids need help but are equally fearful of blowing out of proportion what you feel are probably normal grief reactions. After all, they loved and miss their parent also.
If your children are old enough to understand, talk with them about whether they feel they want to include all of the old family rituals that used to be part of the holiday season. Is there a way to take pieces of those old customs and incorporate them into something new? It may be very difficult for you to be a part of the familiar things that you used to take delight in planning and executing with your husband or wife, but right now you are the center of your children’s world. They need you to maintain order, and to perpetuate some of the things they find comforting and familiar, if you can manage to do it at least a bit.
At times, duplicating some of your old rituals but in a new setting, takes some of the edge off the activities. Can you spend the holidays with a friend or relative, or invite some people to come and share their own traditions with you? If your kids are receptive, you can think about planning and implementing a new tradition. Can you create a contest where each child gets a small prize for coming up with a simple new idea? Sometimes a silly activity is just what everyone needs. Let them know that change is fine and things don’t have to be the same as they always were, unless they truly want them to be. Perhaps each family member can pick one custom he or she absolutely wants to carry on, and then you can invent new things around your top choices.
Sometimes a family photo night can be a way to prime the pump and open up feelings. As hard as it is, it is also wonderful and necessary to remember together. Gather together a bunch of photos of your family at different special times and ask each child to write down one or two things he or she remembers about that day. If the child is too young to remember, have the child describe what he or she imagines was happening in the photo, and what each person was feeling. Young kids can draw pictures, or can dictate to you what they want to say. If you save the little memory slips of paper and drawings in a specially designated and decorated jar or box, you can use this activity over and over. Young children may want to decorate the jar or box themselves. Each person can choose a slip from the jar to read and talk about. You might create a special meal, snack or activity around the memory night. Perhaps each person can act out a memory or scene.
Be proactive and know that the upcoming holiday season will be a challenge, and that you may need to think ahead a bit. Was there a cause or special interest your late spouse had a real passion about? Can you plan a project with your children to honor him or her, and to make the holidays more meaningful? Do your kids want to involve friends or other relatives, or is this a family project they prefer to keep private?
Find a way to reach out to someone else in need, if you feel up to it. The first Thanksgiving after I was widowed in my 30’s and had three young kids, we volunteered to serve a meal at a local shelter. Not everyone initially wanted to do this, so we worked out a compromise. It was a very positive experience.
In our family, since we were/are a religiously and culturally mixed family, we had multiple traditions we had developed into our own brand. It was very painful for me to read the Chanukah Gelt story by Sholem Aleichem that we had always shared with our kids. Although my late husband wasn’t Jewish, he delighted in reading this and acting it out with enthusiasm. Yet, doing this with the family also brought back great memories and opened up some lively discussion for us.
At Christmastime, after my husband’s death, it was especially awkward and uncomfortable for me. My husband had truly enjoyed the rituals we built over time and some of them were those he had experienced, or wished he had experienced as a child in his own family. Although my kids were raised “multi-cultural with strong Jewish overtones” they knew that their father loved some of the Christmastime routines. Before going to bed, the kids gathered many of their favorite stuffed animals and arranged them around the tree. Once they were asleep, my husband and I repositioned the animals and put them in crazy places, such as hanging from the beams of our cathedral ceiling, or under a couch cushion, sitting on top of the toilet paper holder in the bathroom, or in a shoe under someone’s bed. Santa also left long, funny notes for the kids and s gave clues about where gifts were hidden. Sometimes the notes explained how contents of stockings had spilled over and stockings had given birth to little stockingettes, and could be found on the third step of the cellar hatchway.
Due to some unpleasant family dynamics, there was little contact with my late husband’s family after his death, and I suddenly felt very torn, confused and pressured about which customs to preserve. It felt fake and obligatory for me to continue the customs of a family that wanted little or nothing to do with me or with my kids. They were not my own customs, though I had previously adopted some of them. Yet they were comforting to my children. Little by little, with all kinds of help, I had to forge a new way of being, honoring the past and the old, but embracing our new beginnings.
While I wanted my children to have the gift of memory, security and continuity, I learned that it did our family little good as a whole, if I felt stressed, resentful and overwhelmed. I had to be honest with my children, explaining but not over-explaining my feelings, on a level each of them could understand developmentally. I gave them some choices, but big decisions were mine, as the adult in charge.
The greatest lesson for me that I have shared with others over the years, has been that one can’t fill anyone else’s buckets if his or her own bucket is full of holes, and if everything is leaking out. Line up your support system in advance. Know that you may be hit hard at holiday time and that you can use some extra support. Can you ask a friend to spend time with the children while you have an adult evening out with someone else? What would you like to do? Give yourself a gift for the holidays too, whether something concrete or just some time to yourself, if that is what you crave. Self-care is twice as important when you are newly bereaved and when you are the main strength for your children.
Iris Arenson-Fuller, Certified Professional Coach helps individuals and families through and beyond loss, grief and trauma. Loss is not only about death, as there are many types of loss. She also assists the adoption community with issues of adoption and adoption loss.
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