In my previous blog, I wrote about holiday expectations and how to manage if the family is dealing with a member with an addiction, whether that person is in recovery or still using. In this blog I want to address family issues when a family member has died or if the family is coping with divorce.

Again, ask yourself what you have experienced over the holidays in the past and whether anything has recently occurred that would affect your expectations. Have those events made it harder? Are you hoping things could be better? How should you respond?

When a family is facing holidays after the death of a loved one, the grieving is inevitable but does not necessarily mean everyone must feel depressed. Grieving can be hard when people want you to be cheerful, but anyone who has gone through this experience knows that grieving comes in waves that are strong at first and gradually, over time, diminish in intensity, frequency and duration. Trying not to feel sadness temporarily blocks it but does not eliminate it. Rather grief builds when unexpressed.

  • Allow for grief. If you have lost a family member, prepare for the possibility that you will be bowled over by the grief. But also know that it will pass and you will be able to go on. If the person you loved died very recently, this will be harder. But even if your loved one passed away 11 months ago, this is still the first holiday season without that person so many things will seem different. If you are overcome by tears, just cry. If you wish that person were with you, say so out loud. Feel permission to acknowledge that person's presence in your heart and in your thoughts.
  • Grieving does not mean that you cannot feel the pleasure of your current company. At times those who grieve find it incongruous that they can laugh and enjoy a moment, only to feel sad the next. One of the truths about all states of emotion is that they come and go. If you do not struggle against the sadness, do not struggle against the joy either. It is not a betrayal of your loved one to feel pleasure even if that person is not with you

  • Take time to reminisce about the person who has died. Talk with others about the pleasurable times that you shared. Know what your parent or sibling or partner would have enjoyed about the holiday and acknowledge how some things you are doing would have been fun for that person. Or maybe you will remember some part of the holiday that the family member would have laughed about or been curmudgeonly about. Remembering honors the relationship and eases sadness.

  • You do not have to make others feel better if they are sad. It is a great gift you give when you allow others to express sadness or loss without trying to change how they feel. When those around you are able to be themselves and move on to other topics without feeing wrong or unacceptable loss can make it easier to bear. It is not your obligation to cheer up a grieving person. It is easier on you to express sympathy and simply acknowledge how the others feel, even if you do not share the depth of the grief.

  • Plan some time to think about that person and what you miss about them. You may have to take the lead on this, and, without being maudlin, it might involve for the surviving family members to have a specific time to remember that person. An example of that might be to share a few words of remembrance at the start of a meal or share a toast to that person.

    But what if the loss is a divorce? That never feels as straightforward as grief even though it is a loss. And the family may have wildly different feelings about the situation. Younger children may be tearful or cranky without being able to express their loss and other family members may be afraid to mention the absent parent to them for fear of making it worse or making the present parent feel sad or guilty. Similar guidelines that apply to grief apply here when it comes to allowing sad individuals to be sad, but a few additional points may help you plan to handle the holiday in a household where a couple has divorced.

  • No matter which partner you are supporting, a rule of 'no bad-talking' the other parent in front of the children is a wise idea. This is true no matter how long it has been since the divorce or how old the children are. Even if adult children know the basics of the reason for divorce, they rarely want to hear the absent parent insulted by other members of their family.

  • Make sure that plans to spend time with one parent or the other are well-defined ahead of time so that uncertainty does not add to anxiety about splitting time between households.

  • Even still-married couples disagree about how much to spend or what the in-laws will buy. It is even more likely to be trouble between the divorced parents whose financial situations may be quite disparate or who may be trying to soothe guilt by giving gifts to the children. Do not drag children into the discussion by telling them about your disappointments or disagreements with the absent parent. It is really hard not to air these complaints in front of children, but your restraint will always pay off in the long run.

  • If one parent is unreliable about showing up or showing up on time, make sure the parent who is with the children is prepared to be cheerful about it and have some activities in mind that can fill minutes, hours, or even a day.

  • If the divorce itself is old news, and children are older, allow those older children to be a active part of any decision on how to spend their holiday time. If they are adults, and you are the divorced parent, it is essential to family harmony for you to not pressure your children. Know what you want from the holiday. What times do you especially want to share with them? Extend invitations to them and ask them to decide in plenty of time for you to adjust to what they need. If you are going to their home(s) then similarly know what they have in mind for how to share their time. In an ideal world, a family with a divorce can come together on some occasions, but if that is unlikely in your family you can minimize your depression by advance and intentional planning.

The main point is to handle holiday plans with openness and with graciousness. If you are the person saddened by divorce, this may be extremely hard, and this is the situation to lean on friends or other family but not on the children. It can be hard to remember, but children can tell the difference between the parents and learn what each can be counted on for. The meaning of 'virtue is its own reward' in this context is that when you do not burden children at the holidays with your anger or sadness over the actions of one of their parent, they may not know at that very moment how much effort your restraint requires, but you do. You are helping create holidays that are not disappointing or depressing. You are doing it for them, and the happy memories they can build, unsullied by distress, is the best gift you can give.

About the Author

Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.

Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and a popular public speaker. Her latest book is The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques.

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