The holiday season is a time of ritual and tradition for immediate and extended families. Between decorating a tree, lighting the menorah, singing carols, baking cookies, enjoying a feast and visiting friends, the holidays are filled with memory-making activities.
Unfortunately, children and teens who are grieving the death of a parent or other important person in their lives are missing someone who had been at the center of those special customs. That can make it difficult for parents of grieving children to know how to navigate holiday celebrations.
Blue Butterfly, a program of Tidewell Grief Care and Empath Health, serves and supports grieving children and teens ages 5-18 in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. Blue Butterfly counselors say it is important for families to find a way to honor the deceased loved one while deciding which holiday traditions to keep, change or discard.
“The biggest advice I would give for children of any age is to ask them,” said Blue Butterfly Counselor Lendy Chapman, MS, CCLS. “Ask them what they want to do for the holidays and how they want to honor their person. They still may want to put up a Christmas tree. They still may want to do a lot of the things that are the same. For the young children, it’s important not to assume what they may or may not want. It could be looked at as another loss.”
Blue Butterfly Director Danielle Visone, MSW, LCSW, said, “Maybe they can’t do everything like they used to do, but maybe they can find one or two things you can do so it feels like the holidays.”
During peer-support sessions, Blue Butterfly helps young people include their special person in holiday preparations through activities, including the creation of memory lanterns, picture frames and memory trees. On the memory trees, family members hang paper ornaments that feature a handwritten memory of the departed person, such as a favorite carol or favorite thing to read at Hanukkah.
Visone said one Blue Butterfly family shared a creative way to remember a departed grandmother. The family bought a gift for the grandmother, then had everyone guess how she would have responded to receiving the gift. The responses were written into a memory book.
Ultimately, the key to getting through the holidays while grieving is to set reasonable expectations and avoid trying to do too much.
Instead of wishing Blue Butterfly families “Happy Holidays,” Chapman often says, “I hope the holidays are what your family needs them to be.” She said parents often tell her the lead-up to the holiday is more difficult than the day itself.
“It is going to be different. There are going to be parts of it where you are going to find joy, but there are also going to be parts of it that are going to be extremely difficult. Both of those experiences can be OK,” Chapman said.
Following are a few holiday tips Blue Butterfly shares with families:
- Take breaks. Self-care is important. Don’t be afraid to say no to parties or activities if necessary. Do what feels right for you.
- Lean on your support. Communicate with trusted friends, support group or religious community about the challenges you face during the holidays and let them hold you up.
- Identify coping opportunities. The holidays can be a good time to explore other ways to to express emotion, such as physical activity, journaling, art.
- Be gentle with yourself. There may be pressure to re-create holidays of the past and keep everyone busy. Allow space to acknowledge the departed person’s absence grieve accordingly.
- It is OK to enjoy yourself. Don’t feel guilty about being excited about the holidays or enjoying traditions.
- The holidays may look different. Approaching each tradition individually and thoughtfully can help you determine what works best for your family.
For more information about Blue Butterfly, visit BlueButterflyCenter.org or call (941) 893-6610.