Celebrating the Holidays in the Face of Tragedy
by Michelle Herrigel, PsyD
25 years ago today, exactly one week before Christmas, my mother died suddenly. As a teenager, this staggering blow came at a time when the tree was already trimmed, Christmas lights were up and the gifts were even wrapped. Needless to say, Christmas was “canceled” that year and my family did the best we could to cope. In the years since, each member of our family has found their own ways to celebrate, and honor her memory. And rightfully so: Christmas was her very favorite holiday.
For many who have been witness to the horrifying events in Newton, CT and the unspeakable losses suffered by those at Sandy Hook Elementary, we are left wondering: How can I laugh and celebrate the holiday season in the fact of this heartbreaking time? As a nation, we grieve for the loss of 26 innocent lives, and ask “Why?” While we may never have answers that help us understand, there are some things to keep in mind during the holiday season to help us both celebrate and keep things in perspective.
*You are allowed to enjoy the holidays… although some people may experience feelings o guilt that they are having fun when so many are suffering.
*The joy and wonder children experience at the holidays is one of the most precious aspects of the season. Maintaining or reconnecting with the real meaning of the holiday for your family may by a way to refocus on what is important and help children understand what is happening.
*Remember that everyone handles loss and grief differently. Each of us will experience a range of emotions. It’s very normal to feel shock, anger, sadness, fear, disbelief, and also experience difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, fatigue or other physical issues. In the short term, these symptoms are very normal and usually resolve with time.
*Allow your family to talk about the tragedy and process it. Listening and addressing concerns, especially of our children, is important. Saying things such as “I will do everything I can to keep you safe” can be a good way to help children feel safe. Avoid telling children that the world is unpredictable and that there’s nothing that can be done.
*Avoid political debates at the holidays. Gun control and mental health reform at topics best left for the New Year. They have no place at the family holiday celebration.
*It’s perfectly fine to express emotion and sadness. These emotions help send us a signal that we may need to slow down and deal with our own reactions. Children are much more open about their feelings, but as adults, we often bury these feelings in the hustle and bustle of the season. If children express fear or sadness, allow them to discuss it. If they need additional hugs or sleeping with the light on, that’s OK too.
*Maintain a normal routine and traditions. Plan a special way of honoring those lost. Here are some suggestions:
*Play a special song or poem
*Hang a special ornament on the tree
*Light a memory candle in their honor
*Share cherished memories or wishes for those lost
*Offer a toast or prayer
*Volunteer or adopt a family, donate to Toys for Tots in their memory.
*Be sure to be kind, both to your self and to others. The holiday season is one in which we often engage in self-reflection and count our blessings. Reach out to those in need or family members who have lost their way from the family.
I always tell people, “If you love someone, don’t wait to tell them”. You will never look back on your life and say “I wish I had not told all those people how much I loved them.”.
Take the opportunity at the holiday season to reconnect, reflect and reaffirm what you hold dear.