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Helping Children Navigate the Holidays After Tragedy

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When tragedy strikes, whether inflicted by accident, nature or the intentional acts of others, grief envelops individuals, families, communities, nations and sometimes the world. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy and the tragic shootings that have recently caused heartbreak throughout our nation, parents may wonder how to navigate the holiday season.

How do grieving families and communities handle this time of year? Should parents rally their physical and emotional resources to ensure their children experience family traditions? Should town councils make sure that their annual holiday parade or tree lighting ceremony occurs? There is no right answer, because the way we respond to grief is very personal, even for communities.

I think it is important, however, to understand the healing power of continuing traditions, especially for grieving children. Traditions are one way we celebrate life and the love that endures beyond tragedy. Carrying on cherished traditions helps grieving children, families and communities remember and celebrate the past while providing a legacy for the future. They help maintain healthy emotional connections to family members, especially to a loved one who has died, and to community life.

"While it may be nearly impossible for grieving parents and communities to continue holiday traditions the way they were before a tragedy, it's important for children to continue them in some form," says Darcie Sims, Ph.D., CHT, CT, GMS, national bereavement expert. "Find ways to keep the essence of your traditions going and talk to you children now about what they are going to look like this year. Let them help keep your traditions alive."

I have been blessed to spend every Christmas for the last 50 or so years, except for one, with my family. In 1991, I was a newlywed traveling in India with my husband at Christmas time. It was to be a grand adventure, so I was stunned by how sad I felt about missing my family and our traditions. My husband rallied to the occasion and began using the few resources we had to create the experience of decorating a Christmas tree, only it was a "Christmas chair." We used a clothesline and bells we had purchased in Nepal to decorate one of the chairs in our hotel room. The simple act of hanging ornaments connected us to our family memories and flooded me with a sense of belonging.

For the thousands of families displaced by Superstorm Sandy, traditions are a vital link to the homes, loved ones, lives and communities that have been destroyed. They are a light in the darkness. In Union Beach, N.J., just days after Sandy gutted homes and businesses, an artificial Christmas tree was rescued from the debris by a passerby, who bought a stand and hoisted it in a field. Over the course of the next days, grieving residents transformed it into their vision of hope, adorning it with handmade ornaments, lights and written messages.

On Nov. 10, the annual Veterans Day observance was held in Jefferson Township, N.J., despite the devastation Sandy had inflicted. Though the traditional bands didn't assemble and the parade was suspended, wreaths were laid and the flag was raised in tribute to our nation's servicemen and women. Continuing the essence of this tradition helped residents honor the past, celebrate the present and inspired them to build the future.

Even in the best of times, the holiday season can be fraught with stress as we strive to buy the perfect gift, hang one more string of lights, or prepare a family feast. For grieving adults, additional stress may be crippling. For grieving children, the loss of seasonal traditions results in secondary losses and additional grief. So consider simple ways to continue your traditions. Approach this season with the attitude of Curious George rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. "A parent's reassurance and stability can go a long way in giving a child the ability to accept difficult circumstance and adversity," says licensed professional counselor and behavioral health specialist Tricia Ferrara.

Explain to your children that, although this season may be very different, you are still going to participate in the holidays. Involve them by asking what they enjoy doing with you that they would like to continue. Let their imaginations lead the way. You may be surprised by how simple their wishes are. Some of the most modest details serve as the anchors that evoke familiar sights, sounds, smells and memories from year to year.

Explore alternatives to traditional decorating or gift giving. Stringing popcorn, writing a poem, offering an act of kindness, or playing a game together might serve as memorable celebrations and gifts. Serving others who have suffered hardships may also help family members connect with the true meaning of the holidays.

For those who are grieving, it's important to understand grief's lifelong nature. Long after the headlines shift the nation's attention to other news, grief remains in the hearts of those who have been affected by tragedy, and it can come rushing back throughout one's life, particularly on certain anniversaries and life's milestones.

Traditions are the thread that unite and comfort us, transcending time and generations. While they help us maintain a connection to those who have died or the past that we've lost, they focus on the living and the love that carries us forward.

Peace to us all this holiday season.

Laura Munts is president of the board of directors of Mommy's Light Lives On Fund (www.mommyslight.org). She has guided the organization since its inception and served as executive director from 1997 until 2010. Previously, she served as assistant general counsel for Comcast Corporation and as an associate in the Philadelphia law firm of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll. Laura earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law School and her undergraduate degree from Franklin & Marshall College. She received a master's degree in applied psychology from the University of Santa Monica. In December 2005, People magazine recognized Laura as a "Woman Who Makes A Difference" for her work with Mommy's Light. She and her husband have two teenagers and love the sounds of their laughter echoing in the Canadian wilderness every summer.

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