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How to deal with a missing loved one around the holidays

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My sister’s husband passed away last summer, and other than his obvious absence, we’re planning the usual holiday get together at our house with my mother, my sisters and their families. What can I do to make this annual event a pleasant one for all, especially her three children, ages 8 to 13, and the rest of the cousins? My sweet 7-year-old has already asked me what she should do if she sees her grandma crying.

Sad Sister

Don’t miss last week’s column Talk to your kids early and often for a high IQ — Good Parenting

Dear Sad Sister,

Grief, as you may know, is a process, uniquely experienced by each griever. Readiness to “move on” could come more quickly to some than to others. Your sister and her children may still be somewhat in shock, unable to imagine themselves enjoying happy family times again. Respecting their individual stages of grief will be important to the “success” of your event.

Children depend on familiar faces and comfortable routines to shape their world, especially after a crisis such as the death of a parent. A similar need for something to count on is experienced by children of divorce whose family structure undergoes realignment. The temporary long term absence of a close family member, as with military deployment, also tests children’s sense of security. A child just wants to be able to count on what he has come to count on.

Plan A

Any gathering with children needs to have good planning to be successful. Keep in mind the children’s ages, food preferences, entertainment needs, etc. Younger children do best when an adult or two are charged with keeping them entertained, fed, etc. Take shifts as needed so the adults are able to spend time with the other adults. Older children are honored to be included in appropriate games and discussions with the adults, as well as helping with hosting duties such as taking and retrieving guests’ coats.

Any thought to including the recently departed family member through favorite foods, funny family stories or reverent mention in a solemn prayer should be discussed with his widow ahead of time. She may be anxious to have her children participate in something that has nothing to do with grieving, and therefore the traditional dessert — his homemade apple pie — should be replaced, without any fanfare, with another dessert. On the other hand, she may be reassured that her husband’s absence is acknowledged rather than treated as a non-event. In this case, encourage those in attendance to include his heroics and foibles in the family story telling. Either way, her feelings as to how much to include him should be respected.

She is also the best person to consult about the children’s wishes. They may be more ready to move on than she, or vice versa. A separate seating area for the children, supervised as needed, can solve the problem of the different generations being on different planes about the death. If she cannot answer whether the children have strong opinions about how or if Dad should be included, ask her if you could talk to each child ahead of time.

One good suggestion for grieving children is to have a physical memento of their father to carry with them wherever they go. This could be an item of clothing such as one of his neckties, a memorial piece of jewelry, or a photo image laminated for pocket carrying or digitally stored on a cell phone. Such a keepsake can help the child honor his absent parent whenever he wishes.

Although the first year’s celebrations are the toughest to get through, getting back to “normal” is one goal of the grieving process. Your sister, her children, as well as the rest of the extended family will feel better seeing that the holiday, with participation by everyone in attendance, has managed to come just as before.

Plan B

A wise suggestion from grief.com is to have a back out plan ready to go. If your sister is at all hesitant about being amidst family joy without the love of her life, or one of her children is at his wit’s end about having the usual gathering without his Dad, let her know that she can cancel at any time. She can even back out after they get there.

She can let her children know what to expect from Plan A (with maybe some sniffling from Grandma) but that, just in case things don’t go well enough, they can duck out for an alternate scenario for this holiday. This might be going home for a simple meal of leftovers and a movie watched so often with Dad that everyone knows the lines. Or the plan might be for some anonymous mall walking where they’re not likely to run into anyone who knows them and knows this is their first holiday without him. Grieving is hard work. A break from it is well-deserved.

Beyond holiday challenges, be sure your sister’s children see that she is surrounded by a loving support network. They need to see that their mom is taken care of so they know that she is fully capable of taking care of them.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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