When the Holidays Hurt: Grieving Through the Holidays as a Single Parent

I’m a huge fan of Thanksgiving. Before my divorce we had all kinds of Thanksgiving traditions, one of which included putting on the goofiest Thanksgiving Day costumes and dashing downtown to participate in our city’s annual Turkey Trot. Afterward, we’d head home to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. I was always busy in the kitchen prepping dinner during the show but would always stop whatever I was doing to watch the Radio City Rockettes with my kids. Even as a young girl, I was completely mesmerized by their glittering costumes and sky-high synchronicity, and watching my kids experience the same wonder was always a highlight of the morning.

But the glitter faded the first year I spent Thanksgiving without my kids, post-divorce. As the day neared, I couldn’t even think of carrying out my favorite traditions without my children. Imagining the possibility brought me to tears, and the thought of continuing on without them just seemed to highlight the fact that I was going to be alone.

Frustratingly determined, I decided what I really needed to do was get around some other people and create some new solo Thanksgiving traditions. I came across an opportunity to volunteer at a local church serving Thanksgiving meals and I jumped at it. It was something I’d always wanted to do with my kids, but never had made the time. The idea gave me hope – I thought what better way to spend my holiday morning alone than serving my community?

Unfortunately, I got caught up cooking that morning and arrived at the church late, and I ended up being assigned as a lonely door greeter. Ugh, alone. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. Worse yet, most of the guests had already arrived, and I sheepishly looked on as the visitors and volunteers laughed and hugged one another, surrounded by food and festivity. I felt defeated but stubbornly kept my post, refusing to let my feelings get the best of me.

I was relieved when my shift ended; standing at that door, pretending to be happy when I wasn’t, was exhausting. After serving, I arrived at my parents’ house just in time for dinner. The gathering was small and unfussy; I finally felt like I could just be myself and relax. But as my dad prayed over the meal, I was suddenly blindsided by the memory of yet another tradition I’d be missing with my kids; after the prayer we would usually go around the prayer circle and take turns sharing what we were thankful for.

I couldn’t escape it. I was smack in the middle of the moment, thinking of my son being thankful for his Thomas trains, but not being there to say so. Thinking of my oldest daughter not being there to nudge him and give him an eye roll. And when it was my turn to share, all I could think about was the fact that the three little blessings I was most thankful for weren’t standing there beside me.

I mustered up enough courage (or maybe just enough good manners) to get through our sharing time. As everyone began to fill their plates, I snuck away to the laundry room to compose myself. I thought perhaps I had managed to slip out unnoticed, but my dad (who never misses a thing) had followed behind. I turned, and he hugged me.

And I finally just let myself cry.

No words were exchanged. He just knew. How could I celebrate a day about family without my family? I had been lying to myself about the way I felt. And I couldn’t fake it anymore.

Coping with Grief as a Single Parent at the Holidays

For some of us, the holidays are less sparkly, less sugary sweet, less everything. When your family is experiencing brokenness and loss, the holidays hurt. You don’t look forward to the days most people look forward to. You notice the happy families. While it’s not their fault, those families are nothing but a giant reminder of what you don’t have. Or what you’ve lost. And it’s a ruthless reality we confront not one time, but year after year.

Somehow, our disappointment eventually turns to guilt for not partaking in the festivities. It feels almost sacrilegious to be sad during the season of joy. So we buck up and try to move forward. After all, isn’t that what “good Christians” do?

Not exactly. While we can get to a place where we can enjoy things like the holidays in a new way, Ecclesiastes 3:4 is clear that there’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Mourning has its time. And we can’t rush it, even if the thick of our grieving season falls smack in the middle of the holidays.

Jesus says in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” So often we don’t want to deal with the mourning. But if we skip it, we miss out on receiving God’s comfort in our grief.

And ya’ll, we need that. We need God’s comfort because it is our very source of strength. It is the only way to experience stability in a world full of chaos, in a world that just does not make sense. We need to know that we have some place we can be rooted, if we’re ever going to be able to move forward again.

But sometimes moving forward means accepting the fact that where we are is where we are right now, and that moving forward just isn’t going to happen this year.

I made the mistake of trying to remake my Thanksgiving holiday instead of simply grieving it. And in doing so, I added to my own suffering, rather than allowing God to tend to me in my sorrow.

Three Ways to Approach the Holidays as a Single Parent

If you’re grieving during this holiday season, it can help to consider how you’d like to approach these days in advance. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Simplify your Celebration

While all the extra trappings of the holiday can be a bit much on the brokenhearted, our hurting hearts can somehow celebrate in a deeper, more authentic way. Because we need great healing, we may be better able to clear away the excess to focus on a purer expression of worship that the holiday season can evoke. So if you must, simplify.

Don’t shame yourself if you don’t have the energy to go all out with decorations or send Christmas cards. These gestures might be socially approved but may not be the way you feel inclined to celebrate this year. You may feel uncomfortable with attending parties this year, especially if you fear a barrage of intrusive questions about your current life circumstances. That’s okay. Celebrating in grief may mean forgoing traditions, if even only for a year, in favor of slowing down to honor God in whatever way you feel led by the Holy Spirit. Go with it.

Seek Support

Trying to bear the burden of what you’re going through on your own prevents you from experiencing the compassion God has for you through those around you. God often works through family (biological and/or spiritual) to meet our comfort needs. When the holidays hurt, it often helps if we express those needs to safe people in our lives who are willing to care for us. Approaching people with your needs may be outside your comfort zone. However, even well-meaning people may be afraid to intrude or may not think they can do much to help. Do you need a place to celebrate a holiday meal? Do you need someone to call and check on you the day of the holiday? Think about who you can talk to, what you need, and communicate it as early as possible. Consider family, friends, or members of your church community.

Plan for the Unexpected

Despite our best attempts to predict how we’ll feel when the holiday comes, we never truly know until the moment arrives. If you feel inclined, plan for your ideal celebration, whether that’s traveling to visit lots of friends and family or hosting a small gathering in your home. However, prepare for the reality that when we are grieving, our emotions often catch us off guard and slow us down in ways we don’t anticipate. We may not be as cheerful or may feel distracted and sluggish. If things go awry, have a backup plan in case you’re not able to take on as much as you intended. Communicate your plan to those who can help support you if you need help. Always pray for the best, but know what you will do if the worst sneaks up on you.

When the Holidays Hurt This Year

This time around, I am making two contingency plans for my next holiday alone. If things don’t go as planned when my kids leave for the weekend, my parents already know I may be showing up on their doorstep with a sleeping bag, my comfy jammies, and Christmas movies in hand.

In this season of your life, the holidays may not have quite the luster you wish they did. But our mourning is precious to God, and our tears are an offering. I can think of no better time to have a deep experience of God’s tenderness and love than the very season in which He displayed it on the grandest scale.

This post first appeared at FocusontheFamily.com but has been modified from the original version.

Michelle Donnelly

Michelle Donnelly is the President and CEO of PlusONE Parents, a ministry devoted to helping single parents overcome overwhelming situations to rebuild God-empowered lives and raise up a new generation. A mother of three, Michelle is also the host of The Christian Single Moms Podcast and author of Seen: Hope & Healing for Single Moms as well as Safe Haven: A Devotional for the Abused and Abandoned.

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