Holiday should accommodate family changes

Holidays can be complicated when families are in flux, said Evan Imber-Black, guest speaker at University of Illinois’ Pampered Chef® Family Resiliency lecture.

The Christmas after Sherry’s husband left, she didn’t send out Christmas cards because the family photo she had taken earlier in the year didn’t work anymore. She didn’t decorate the tree because that had been her husband’s thing and, besides, he’d asked for all the ornaments. She felt guilty about the separation so she spent more on the kids’ presents than she should have.

When the kids left to spend the holiday with their father, Sherry consoled herself by planning for their anticipated return at 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, their flight didn’t arrive until 10, and the kids were too worn out to get into the spirit of Sherry’s New Year plans.

Three years later, Sherry had recovered enough to reclaim her rights to have holidays with a changed family. Her Christmas cards featured a photo of the children; she began to buy live trees to decorate in December, which she then planted in her yard; and she initiated better planning with her ex-husband so the kids didn’t get back from one trip too tuckered out to participate in another parent’s merrymaking.

“If holidays are to be meaningful, they should honor the strengths and resources of your current family. Traditions should reflect family changes,” said Imber-Black, a family therapist who works to enhance the resilience of families facing challenge. She is also co-author with Janine Roberts of Rituals for Our Times: Celebrating, Healing, and Changing Our Lives and Our Relationships.

When families are going through separation or divorce, children often feel that adults are making decisions about their lives in which they have no say, she said. Control becomes a real issue for children.

One father felt a real pall had settled over Christmas Day as he and his son waited each year for a call from his son’s mother that never came. The father solved that problem by calling his ex-wife first thing Christmas morning so that he and his son could wish her a merry Christmas. Then they could get on with their festivities.

When a family member has died, remaining family members can overreact in one of two ways, she said. They can celebrate as if there has been no loss, or they can opt for skipping the holiday entirely. “I want us to be like other families at Christmas. I want us to be happy,” said one mother who had lost a child.

“Just skipping Christmas is not a good idea,” said Imber-Black. “It’s hard to escape from the holidays. In one family, a beloved grandfather died a few months before the holidays, family members had just been home for the funeral, and, one by one, surviving kin decided that they wouldn’t come home for the family gathering that year.

“They ended up doubly troubled, each alone with their grief, without the love and support of family members, while they were sharply aware that celebration was going on everywhere,” she said.

The other mistake, celebrating as if nothing has happened, forces feelings underground. The mother who insisted on a “happy Christmas just like other families,’” even though her son had died, found that tension rose before the holiday and no one understood why.

“It’s important to talk about the missing family member so that people can make meaning out of their loss. Because they didn’t do that, family members were cut off from a source of comfort and from the possibility of experiencing any new joy with each other,” Imber-Black said.

“Talk about the year Dad tipped the Christmas tree over—or the time that Mom dropped the turkey on the floor. Place a cherished grandmother’s candlesticks on the dining table as the meal is eaten. It’s important for a grieving family to integrate their loss into family life, including their celebrations and traditions.”

The Pampered Chef® Family Resiliency Program at the University of Illinois supports research, education, and public outreach that strengthens families’ ability to be resilient in the face of life stressors and to successfully navigate the competing demands of work and family. The program was established through a gift from Doris Kelley Christopher, founder of The Pampered Chef and a University of Illinois alumnus. Laurie Kramer directs the program.

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