For those using these posts as a guide for navigating the holidays after loss, I would recommend you view them all before having those hard conversations. I may not be giving the information in the best possible order. The last posts will contain ideas from other grieving parents and grandparents that might be very helpful in deciding what’s best for you and your family. You can share these posts to your own Facebook page or follow the blog via email to have access to them for easy future reference.
You don’t have to bury a child to know that changing long-standing family traditions around holidays is a hard, hard thing.
Just ask a parent trying to work out Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time after an adult child marries. Suddenly the way things have “always been” are no longer the way things are.
Holidays typically involve so many more people and family members than everyday get-togethers and each person brings expectations, emotions and personal history to the table.
So, that is why I decided to run this series of posts NOW. Because one of the things I have learned over the years is that giving people time to adjust to change is a good thing.
If you have made a Holiday Journal like I suggested, then use a page to list all the people that are typically part of your family’s holiday plans-you might want to make subheadings by holiday (and there may be other special get-togethers your family observes, so include those).
That list is a starting point for the people you may need to communicate with about the upcoming holidays.
Don’t feel like you have to include each individual in a unique communication-you can focus on those who are “in charge” of the gatherings/traditions and request that they pass it along.
Here are some specific tips for reaching out:
Understand that they DO NOT understand.
- I know that unless someone has experienced child loss themselves, they really do not understand what it feels like. (You might choose to share this post to help them understand-just a bit:What Grieving Parents Want Others to Know)
- No matter how much they may want to, they cannot really feel what I feel. I have to constantly remind myself of that.
- The closer we get to those dates on the calendar the more likely that others will assume you are just going to continue the traditions.
- Most people dislike change. And they hate it even more when it is a last minute change. So don’t delay in at least giving those affected by your plans a “heads up” that things won’t be the same this year.
- On a practical note people may need time to change plans if they involve making travel arrangements.
Decide how you will communicate your message.
- Do you want to speak to them (on the phone or in person)? This choice allows for subtle communication through tone and inflection but also requires immediate response. Very few people can say, “I need to think about this” before blurting an answer. Sometimes verbal exchanges can escalate quickly.
- Do you want to write your message (text, message, email)? This choice allows for a delayed response, gives a record of what was communicated but leaves room for misinterpretation because tone and inflection are hard to indicate by written word. Let your heart and past experience with the person(s) be your guide. It may be that it’s best one way for some and another way for others.
Acknowledge their loss.
- Regardless of the relationship of other family members to your missing child, they have lost something and someone too. They may not feel my pain precisely, but they feel the pain of losing a grandson, nephew, cousin and they feel the pain of losing who I was before burying my child.
- They need space and permission to express their loss.
Use “I” statements.
- Don’t accuse. Don’t bring up every bad memory from Thanksgiving and Christmas past. Start from today and say, “I feel like I cannot do all (or some or any) of these things for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.”
- Be as honest as you can be. Feelings are not wrong. What we do with them may be wrong or hurtful. But it’s OK to say, “I just can’t do this right now” or “I don’t know how to do this without my child”.
- People naturally hate change. We develop relationship ruts and it takes a lot of energy to climb out of them. They may very well find great comfort in keeping things as “normal” as possible after your loss.
- What is helpful for you may feel threatening to them.
- Stand your ground without being combative. You can say something like, “I understand this is very hard on you, and I am sorry that this is painful, but it’s just how it needs to be for me and my family to continue to heal.”
If you can, offer an alternative.
- In subsequent posts I’ll share some ways other bereaved parents have approached the holiday season. Maybe one of those ideas will appeal to you and you can offer it as an alternative to the way things were before loss.
- You might suggest that extended family continue traditions they cherish and you join in for the part you feel you can endure.
- Assume the best. Assume that your extended family and friends are trying to understand and do not want to add to your burden or cause you pain. Re-read messages with an ear to what hearts are saying even when the words may fail to communicate that message.
- Ask for clarification before you react. There is so much room for misunderstanding around holiday plans anyway and when you add loss to the mix, it can be a recipe for relational disaster.
- Allow time before responding to something that hurts your feelings. It may very well have been unintentional.
I know that all these suggestions require additional emotional energy when we feel we are already tapped out. We are already carrying a load that can crush a spirit-it seems unfair that we have to initiate the conversation, offer alternatives and give grace.
But they do not understand.
And they may not know where to start.
We have to remain focused on the goal: Surviving the holidays.
If your family includes young children, how you approach this season is even more important. You are building memories for them, shaping their childhood experiences and helping them learn to cope with what will be a life-long challenge-living with grief.
Consider printing this post and slipping it in your journal if you are making one. That way you can refer back to it easily.
Tomorrow: What the bereaved need from family and friends…