Even with an early Hanukkah this year, as the cold air blows and a blanket of snow envelopes the ground, nostalgic thoughts may flow with anticipation for kids coming home from college, relatives visiting from afar, all gathered around sipping hot cocoa, warm and snug together.
And then, SCREECH! Reality checks in. Your oldest sister has gotten a divorce over the past year. Your cousin has a chronic mental illness, how will he be feeling? You are concerned about your aging parents health.
When a change happens in our life, it doesn’t just affect us, it affects our entire family. A death in the family, a divorce, supporting a loved one with an intellectual or developmental disability – how can we continue to have our celebrations this Holiday season while still being sensitive and inclusive?
Sometimes, simply acknowledging the change or difference and sharing our own feelings can help to ensure our loved ones do not inadvertently become the proverbial ‘elephant in the room.’
“A woman said to me recently that one of the hardest things about going through her divorce was when people did not acknowledge what was happening, even when she knew that the other person knew about it,” said Divorce Center Specialist Tami Sollo. “She said that it would have been better if people acknowledged that they knew, and offered her the opportunity to talk about it, or not depending on how she was feeling. “
For families going through a divorce, past experiences and traditions will be altered and new ones will begin. There might be multiple celebrations in several different locations. In this circumstance, it may be best to acknowledge the elephant in the room head-on.
“It is not possible to continue with family celebrations in the same way as they were before the divorce,” Sollo said. “Even if divorcing parents choose to have celebrations together with their children, there is a change in the environment, and it should be acknowledged.”
Losing A Loved One
Losing a loved one is hard and can be particularly challenging around the Holidays. For the mourner, how do you handle talking about the loss and with whom, will talking about it take away the holiday spirit
“The best defense is a good offense,” said Elizabeth Siegel-Cohen, Outreach and Bereavement Specialist. “You really have to have an action plan and do some thinking as a bereaved person about how you would like the holiday to go without your loved one
Cohen said that people will take the lead from the bereaved. They’ll be watching you and looking to you for guidance. That’s why planning is key; You can choose to have a quiet holiday, change the tradition this year, or perhaps spend time with those you find to be the most supportive.
Although Holiday rituals might change because the loved one is no longer there, “it’s a great chance to start new ones,” Cohen said. Light a candle. Tell stories across the dinner table. Cohen’s even heard of people writing down memories on pieces of tissue paper and sharing them, then gluing them to an inside of a vase as a memory keepsake.
If you don’t get to see your parents as often as you’d like, the Holidays are a good time to talk about and understand their wishes as they age. Although it may be tough, with other family members there to support each other, you can still enjoy the celebrations while taking the time to talk about serious matters.
“It’s a good opportunity to pull out an advanced directive and start the conversation about some of their values and wishes in end of life care, hospice care and who would make decisions if they are unable to, and even burial plans.” Cohen said.
Loved Ones with A Disability
If a loved one or family member has an intellectual or developmental disability, what’s the right way to promote inclusion so no one feels left out?
“I think this can vary depending on each family and each individual,” said Audra Kaplan, Psy. D, Clinical Psychologist, Camp Firefly Director. “Of course encouraging families to treat individuals with respect and expressing sincere interest in their lives is always wonderful.”
Kaplan says that you should attempt to include all individuals in conversation and activities, to ensure that no one feels marginalized. She suggests having an activity that people of varying developmental levels can participate within to provide a format for inclusion. At Thanksgiving this year, she had everyone write/color/or dictate what they were thankful for on a feather of a construction paper turkey. This allowed everyone to contribute and feel an opportunity to express gratitude.
But in terms of a best practice or particular approach for persons with I/DD during the Holidays; there doesn’t seem to be one. Everyone is unique and will handle situations differently. However, Tammy Besser, Director of Services for People with Disabilities, believes that individuals with autism, or any sensory issue, can present some unique challenges.
Luckily, The Autism Society offers a list of 12 ways to make sure an individual with autism has a happy holiday season.
Making it Work
No matter what could be considered the elephant in the room this Holiday season, know that these are your family, friends and loved ones and everyone is different. Being sensitive, supportive and intuitive is vital to having the best celebration possible.
“Try not to make judgments based on your own experience, or things you’ve heard from other people,” Sollo said. “Some people are comfortable with sharing their personal life, while for others, it is very difficult. Always try to respect that.”
And, if the anticipation feels overwhelming, help is available, either to share your own feelings about an upcoming event, or to work with an objective professional who can help you prepare and practice to engage fully with those you love. For information, call 855-ASK-JCFS (855-275-5237) or visit