The first Christmas after the death of a parent is extremely emotional for children. Because the holiday is a special time for the family, it evokes so many cherished memories. The absence of a parent during this time makes grief just that much more intense.
The same applies to the first Christmas after a separation or divorce. Parents should consider separation as a death of the family unit as it once was, therefore time for grieving is appropriate and should be anticipated and responded to.
But how? As parents, we want to make the emotional journey as easy as we can for our children. Here are six ways to go about it:
Normalize and encourage expressing feelings
Your child will be experiencing feelings of deep sadness and grief, and these strong emotions can be scary. Let your child know that it is OK to be teary and to want to cry a lot.
Also explain that everyone experiences grief differently and at different times. If their sibling is not crying as much, or even seems to be happy, that is OK too. They may cry later, or perhaps experience and express their loss in a different way.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Explain that their own emotions are right for them, and that we can trust and allow feelings to ebb and flow without judgment.
Include the missing parent symbolically
Whether the parent is deceased or the family is not together for the first time, make the missing parent's presence felt. This could be done by sharing stories of past Christmas memories, or making their favourite type of cookie.
This shows children that the missing parent lives on in our hearts and that they are thought of in a positive way.
If your divorce was not amicable, a positive attitude towards your former spouse is better for children, even if you have to fake it.
Make and share a plan
Discuss with your children what the plans and arrangements are. Host a family meeting and write down all the travel and visitation plans on a calendar so they can anticipate, and even help shape, what the holidays look like.
When will we see Dad or Mom? Will the cousins be there? Where will we sleep? These are the types of questions that roll around in kids' minds and that should be explored and answered. While not always possible, if the children can have some say in the planning, all the better.
New traditions, old traditions
The first Christmas after my and my spouse's June separation, my children requested that we get all new ornaments for the tree so it looked different from the family tree of their childhood. They thought the old ornaments would make them sad and make them miss their dad.
Other children may feel the opposite, and want consistency in a time that feels chaotic. It's important to ask them. Some of our family traditions we kept, and others we decided to ditch or update for our new trio.
So, while we still cycle through the same Christmas movies ever year, we've now established which ones they will watch with me and which ones they will watch with their dad. What's important is that their input was asked for, and appreciated.
Expect and accept that your child may need more comfort
When children experience the loss of a parent, it's natural for them to want extra emotional support, and to be assured the other parent is not going to die or leave.
Your child may be extra clingy or display separation anxiety. Perhaps they will want to sleep with you, even if they haven't for years.
While you may not always appreciate having a child clinging to your leg, do take the time to comfort and soothe them with your calm presence. Extra touches, cuddles and co-sleeping will do them good.
Surround yourself with family and friends
While you are comforting the children, who is comforting you? You too will experience a hole in your life. It's an emotionally stressful adjustment period for parents, too.
Be sure you make arrangements to see friends and family so that you're not alone with your thoughts, or feeling isolated.
Sometimes we don't feel like being social when we are sad, but if you can encourage yourself to meet a friend for a coffee, you'll realize it lifts your mood. While it's easy to put all of your energy into the kids this time of year, make sure you remember to tune in to what you need to heal, too.
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