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Holidays: Tension and Tradition

by Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.


People often anticipate the holidays as a chance to renew relationships with family and friends and take a break from everyday work responsibilities. In the aftermath of a death, disaster, or other traumatic event, holidays take on new meaning and importance. As people are still feeling sad or scared, they are questioning how to carry on with the usual traditions. It is important to recognize the significance of holidays and their value in providing a sense of continuity in life. Regardless of life events, however tragic or difficult, it can be reassuring to engage in and embrace the holidays, even if participation and celebration are modified.

Suggestions for parents

  • Parents should set the mood for their children. In happy times and especially when times are difficult, children look to their parents as a model of how to handle situations and manage troubling feelings.

  • Parents should involve their children in planning for holiday celebrations. Once parents have decided on options for changes that need to be made, they can present the options to their children. Children appreciate being given choices and when they participate they are more likely to be cooperative.

  • Marking and focusing on the religious, cultural, or historical aspects of a holiday provide a vital connection to the past. Holidays offer an opportunity to pause and think about the larger religious or personal meaning of the event.

  • Maintaining and following certain traditions can be a source of comfort. The routine of familiar past celebrations can provide a sense of security and continuity in life when one feels overwhelmed. As much as possible, getting back to normal includes engaging in as much of the "normal" holiday rituals as time and circumstance allow.

  • Consider alternative types of celebrations. Although certain elements of a celebration may need to be altered, such as the location, it can be helpful to continue particular aspects of past celebrations -- perhaps an annual game of charades, ice skating outing, or cookie decorating. The place may change but activities can be preserved.

  • For many, the meaning and composition of the family has changed. If there has been a death in the family in the past year, the holidays can be especially painful. The first occurrence of a holiday is often the most difficult. It is important to acknowledge the loss and resulting changes. Some find comfort in carrying on with past traditions that are a tribute to and reminder of the person who has died; others prefer to create new routines and ways to honor someone's memory.

  • Individuals react differently to stress. It is important to respect each one's own timetable and style of coping with traumatic events. People must decide for themselves their preference for traveling; it is not advisable to force someone to fly if they are not yet ready. Parents should be especially sensitive to encouraging and setting usual limits on children's behavior, but should be flexible with children who themselves may be also feeling stressed and unsure.

  • A strong social support network is a protective factor from stress and especially from trauma. Making sure that friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors have a place to go. Inviting someone to join a planned gathering contributes to everyone's recovery and sense of community.

  • In unsettling times, people may find themselves realigning their priorities. They will be appreciative and grateful of time spent with friends and family, and less in need of elaborate celebration.

  • Remember that aspects of reunions with family and friends will remain the same. This includes realizing that people who have always been a source of support will likely continue to be so, but others who were more problematic may still be difficult. Add to this one's own possible diminished tolerance for interpersonal stress and it's important to manage one's own interactions.

  • It may feel as if everyone else is pursuing normal activities. This pressure to return to normal may be compounded by pressure from stores and media that provide a romantic vision of the holidays. Rarely is real life as well orchestrated or positive. Individuals must determine what is appropriate and realistic and balance reality with fantasy.

  • Helping others is often a significant and meaningful part of many people's celebrations. Volunteering, donating time and money to personally worthy causes helps add meaning to the celebration.

About the Author

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.