The holiday season after my divorce found me overwhelmed and almost totally unprepared.  It was a traumatic time, especially for my three young sons. Their father was gone. I went from being a full-time, at-home mom to a single parent working three jobs just to make ends meet. Though I knew the divorce was the right thing to do, I was joyless and angry. Then came Christmas.

More than anything, I wanted this to be a special holiday for my sons. I wanted them to feel love.  Holidays  heighten children’s sense of loss. Even if it’s been years since the parent died or moved out, the child’s pain can be intense this time of the year.

Yet, despite emotional and financial difficulties, parents can make the holiday season special for their children.

Following are my seven strategies for giving your children the holiday present they need and will treasure most: a gift of love.

* Plan holiday celebrations. Divorce, separation or death complicate holidays and special events. Planning ahead helps. With your children, decide how and with whom your family will observe holiday celebrations. Schedule holiday visits and get-togethers with the children in mind; they don’t want to rush from one house to another.

Divide up the children’s wish lists to eliminate duplicate gifts. If possible, divorced or separated parents should attend school functions together for the children’s benefit.   Have the children/teens send holiday cards to relatives and try to include current photos.

* Anticipate potential difficult moments. Before a family gathering, make sure everyone understands that the children and family ties are the focus of the get-together. If there’s bitterness because of a separation or divorce, establish clear-cut ground rules up front that prohibit name-calling, taking sides or verbal bashing of any family members.

Unfortunately, the holidays can bring disappointments to children. Their grandmother, devastated by the recent death in the family, forgets to send a gift or your former spouse fails to keep a holiday promise. Don’t criticize the other person or make up excuses for the offending behavior. Instead, sit down and talk with your children. Ask them how they feel to find out how they want to respond. Some children will choose to ignore the offense. Others might decide to write a note to the person explaining how their actions have affected them.

* Acknowledge your loss. In the hustle and bustle of the season, take time to talk about the parent who has died or to discuss some of the changes that have occurred because Mom and Dad are divorced. My advice is to encourage positive reminiscences. You will enhance the true meaning of the season for your children and build good memories for them to enjoy in the future.

* Be conscious of your feelings. Your attitude toward your former or deceased spouse sets the tone for the children.  An undercurrent of animosity or anxiety will torpedo the holidays for them.  Always try to see how things play out through their eyes.

I believe you will give your children one of the best gifts ever if you rise above the situation and put their emotional needs first.  You may be overwhelmed with negative feelings and anxieties, but don’t burden your children with them. Instead, work through your problems in a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend or compassionate adult relative.

* As a family, discuss old and new traditions. Healthy families change. Establishing new holiday traditions builds connections and rekindles the sense of commitment you have toward each other. This year, talk with your children about new ways you can observe the holidays. New traditions don’t have to be expensive or elaborate.

For our first Christmas alone, I decided to by a live tree with my sons.  To save money, we waited until late afternoon on Christmas Eve to make our purchase. The only tree we could afford was a scrawny pine with several missing limbs and a lopsided stem. Most of our ornaments were homemade or from a discount store. The kids loved it.

* Be realistic about your capabilities. A single parent can’t do everything. Rather than bemoan what’s no longer possible, focus on the positive.   Prioritize your family’s needs, make choices and explain your decisions to the children. It’s okay to say you don’t have the energy, money or enough time off from work to make six dozen cookies, decorate a huge tree and tour the local sites. Ask the children what they want to do most; you might be surprised by their answers.  The most important memory we can give our children this holiday season is time spent together.

* Decide how you’ll spend your free time. The first Christmas morning following the divorce, my sons left for the day with their dad. Turning back to a house of absolute silence, I felt like a lost soul. For hours, I sat on the couch and stared at the tree – devastated and alone. Subsequently, I made sure I had plans for the time when my sons were gone. One year, I served Christmas dinner at a nursing home; another, I cleaned out my closets.

Rainbows For All Children (www.rainbows.org) is an international, nonprofit organization that fosters emotional healing among children grieving a loss from a life-altering crisis. For more than two decades, 2.2 million youth and their families have benefited from Rainbows assistance in 17 countries regardless of age, religious affiliation, race and socioeconomic background.

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Suzy Yehl Marta

Suzy Yehl Marta

Suzy Yehl Marta, a divorced mother of three sons, gave up the security of her three jobs to do something she knew in her heart had to be done for our youth who were grieving a life-changing loss. She established Rainbows, now the world’s largest not-for-profit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss. While growing up, Suzy dreamed of being a good wife and mother. She never considered the possibility of divorce and was devastated when her marriage ended. She was relieved when family and friends told her there was no need to worry about her kids. “They’re resilient. They’ll bounce back,” she was told. But soon Suzy realized her sons were hurting as much as she was. She searched for the type of support that she was receiving as an adult. There was no place accessible for them to talk about what they were feeling. Certainly, there was therapy available, which she tried. At the end of the counseling session, she was advised not to return. The therapist said they were just fine adjusting to their loss. But he never told them how to do it. What Suzy learned later was that they were all grieving the death of their nuclear family. In addition, her sons needed to be with other children their age going through the same experiences so they could understand their feelings. Working with other concerned single parents, Suzy began organizing weekend retreats for children in single-parent and step-family homes. In three years, more than 800 youth benefited from the retreats. After hearing their stories, Suzy was compelled to do more. She began working on a formal curriculum- the foundation of Rainbows. Rainbows has served nearly 2 million youth throughout the U.S. and 16 countries. Now the nation’s largest not-for-profit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss.

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