Handling the holidays after a death or a separation

By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

I'm pretty sure that Norman Rockwell never imagined a Thanksgiving in which a 45-year-old woman and her 14-year-old twin sons climbed into an inner tube only to be sent hurtling down a water-driven tube on something aptly called the Howlin' Tornado.

But that's just what my family did for Thanksgiving this year, staggeringly the third since my husband and their father died of cancer.

Under the best of circumstances, holidays can be hard for families. Do you spend it with his family or yours? What if Aunt Millie inquires again why you aren't remarried?

But for a family dealing with death, divorce or deployment, navigating the holidays can be heartbreaking and exhausting. For parents, who must get themselves through and find a way to re-create the joy of the season for their kids, the idea of keeping traditions alive in transition can be overwhelming.

One woman who had lost her husband eight months before Christmas was determined that that first holiday without him would be just like all the others. She prepared his favorite dishes for Christmas dinner, set the table exactly as they always had. She did everything in her power to make it seem like a normal Christmas for herself, her children, her parents. Except that midway through the meal, the crushing reality of the one thing that wasn't in her power overwhelmed her, and she fled the table in tears.

Finding the balance between the old and the new and keeping old traditions alive while creating new memories is the challenge that families in transition face at the holidays, says Cynthia Glass, a clinical social worker from Olney. She suggests that families deal with the issue straight on, perhaps by having a family meeting before the full swirl of the holiday frenzy gets underway.

"Get the whole family together in a fun way. Maybe around a fireplace or a fire pit; have some music but no TV, and ask everyone to think beforehand what the holidays mean this year. What's the good part? What's the hard part? What do you wish would happen this year?"

No one should be forced to talk, Glass advises. But everyone should be encouraged to acknowledge the loss as much as they feel comfortable. Families need to "embrace the ritual but also acknowledge that things are different . . . that things will never again be the same."

The holidays can be particularly difficult for young children, who may wish that the season of miracles will bring Mom back or allow parents to live together happily again. Adults do children no favor by allowing them to dream that the impossible will come true, Glass says.

"You need to be honest with a child who is asking Santa for Daddy to come back. Talk gently about it. Don't deny the child's feelings," but explain that some things, no matter how much we wish for them, just can't happen.

But the holidays can also be a wonderful time for starting traditions that recognize the new family situation, Glass says. Some of her suggestions:

-- Honor the empty seat if there has been a death or deployment. Put together pictures or sayings about the person who is absent. Remember that it's okay to laugh.

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