Dealing with grief in a time of joy

Laughter filled the house. Thankful to have my parents in town, we feasted on delicious food and good company. But then I noticed my teenage stepson’s face. I knew he was having a hard day. Holidays would never be the same for him after losing his mother to cancer.

I imagined how he must feel — it didn’t seem fair. My parents were approaching 80 years old, and we enjoyed long days and rich company together. My stepson would never have those days with his mom again.

Not all holiday seasons are joyful. The year we learned my husband’s job would end after the first of the year was a tough season. I didn’t care about celebrating, and the expense of gift-giving when our money supply was about to end created ongoing stress. I spent most of my time avoiding those with holiday cheer that year.

Holidays have a way of resurrecting grief from difficult happenings. According to the 2011–12 National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly half of America’s children will have suffered at least one childhood trauma before the age of 18. When we see others celebrating the joy of the season, memories flood our heart, reminding us of the tragedies we want to forget.

If you or your child is grieving this holiday season, don’t deny your feelings. The first season following a loss or life-altering tragedy will be particularly difficult. But that doesn’t mean you must isolate yourself to make it through. Here are a few suggestions to help cope with the feelings that accompany difficult circumstances affecting the holiday season:

Give yourself or your child permission to grieve. Don’t act as if nothing’s happened and try to go along with the celebration of the season. Recognize that grief, with heightened emotions and unpredictable behavior, will surround every aspect of holiday festivities. Creating a “new normal” for the holidays takes time and will only happen after one has been allowed to grieve the “old normal.”

Offer grace freely. The first year after my stepson lost his mother in August, I anticipated a rocky holiday. But what I didn’t anticipate was how difficult the next year, and the next year, and the next would be. I learned to allow him the freedom to go along with family celebrations if he wanted, or retreat to his room when he needed. I didn’t take it personally when he chose to withdraw or lash out on days I was especially cheery. Offering him the gift of grace was the best gift anyone could give him during that time.

Cherish the good days. There will be good days and bad, high times and low. Embrace the good days and celebrate the season. Choose your favorite holiday festivity and make time to enjoy it. Don’t wait! You might not have many joy-filled moments, but the ones you do have can help carry you through the hard ones. If you notice your grief-filled child having a good day, suggest a special activity or ask what he or she would like to do to celebrate the season. Don’t let the good days slip by without intentional effort toward a festive activity, even if it’s as simple as making holiday cookies.

Don’t overextend yourself or your child. Leave your options open so you can attend the Christmas party or other celebration if you feel like it that day, or stay home without obligation. Be sensitive to whether your child wants to participate when friends invite him over or ask him to join their party. Unstable emotions create tension-filled days that are best spent at home, surrounded by those you love.

Remember: there will be better days ahead. When you want to bury your head in your bed covers, remind yourself there’s hope for a new tomorrow. Hard times don’t last forever, and time helps heal our wounds. Look forward to fresh beginnings as a new year approaches.

Difficult circumstances create hard times for us and our children that become magnified at the holidays. We may not always feel joyful during the season. But with the right attitude and resolve to make it through, we can seek to find joyful moments this holiday season that will carry us into a new year with new beginnings and better days ahead.

Gayla Grace is a freelance journalist with a his, hers, and ours family who loves to encourage stepfamilies through her website at www.Stepp‌arent‌ingWi‌thGra‌

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