“Gifts” of the Season for Children
The holiday season is rich in splendor and childlike delights for many but for those families navigating the complexities of a new diagnosis, grieving the first holiday without someone they love or drudging the battlefield of an ongoing illness, the “most magical time of the year” can quickly succumb to the weight of exhaustion and stress. Quite often, parents feel the strain of extreme efforts to preserve traditions, go above and beyond to recreate some of the holiday joy for their children that has felt shadowed this season by illness and/or loss. The most beautiful intentions to support their family and yet, as caregivers quickly come to realize, no amount of presents under the tree or lights atop the house will take away from the loss and worry children have when someone they love has been ill. Real holiday magic isn’t disguising your cancer as non-existent or trying to distract ourselves from a missing loved one at the table this year. Real holiday gifts are unwrapped in the moments of healing that take place around the holiday season together as a family.
At Wonders & Worries, we recognize that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for kids when it comes to navigating illness and loss during the holidays. Much like your children’s own wish lists, their needs and love languages are as varied as their individual personalities. As a team of certified, Child Life Specialists, we have gathered a few holiday “gift” ideas for the season to help give you a jumpstart on your holiday “shopping”.
- The Gift of Play: A powerful way to connect with your child or children is through the world of play. Through play, children communicate, make sense of the world around them, and seek connections. So, whether it is playing a game of catch or making time for a board game, the gift of your time and attention will speak to the very core of your child.
- The Gift of Forgiveness: It is never too late to go back to your child to say “I’m sorry, I could have done that better” or “Mom/Dad is changing that rule because I have found a better, healthier way to do things” or “That must have really hurt when…” For it is within the context of family that we learn how to give and receive apologies. Adults are true agents of healing when we teach our children to ask forgiveness and remedy a mistake.
- The Gift of Time: All family members benefit from quality time with each other one-on-one. Individualized interactions between family members creates a richer relationship and bond independent of the entire, family unit. A simple, thirty minutes of focused quality time can make a world of difference to a child and a grown up!
- The Gift of Fantasy: At this time of year many people are setting goals, hopes, and wishes for the year. Often families coping with illness and treatment may face added stress when children are wishing for things that a parent can't provide. One way to honor a child's DESIRE for a wish to come true is to grant the wish in fantasy. This can be done by first fully acknowledging the wish - "You REALLY wish that you could have all of the money in the world." Follow this by actively entering into fantasy wish through play with your child - “Let's pretend that you do have all of the money. What would you buy first? Let's pretend you are buying that . . ." Allow your child to lead you through this fantasy play and enjoy experiencing it with him/her. At about 6 years of age children begin to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. They often realize that a wish is unlikely or impossible, but it can still be a helpful form of expression. As adults, we often focus our energy on teaching our children about reality instead of joining them in their fantasy. Take time this year to join your child in fantasy. You may be surprised with the outlet it provides. In addition, your child will feel accepted and understood by you, and you will both likely enjoy the experience!
- The Gift of Simplicity: The holidays are often overwhelming even without the addition of illness or loss in your family. This year, especially, choose to model the gift of simplicity. Perhaps you are more selective this season which holiday invitations your family accepts, which traditions you participate in. Choose to decorate (or not decorate) at the level that is right for you, send (or not send) holiday greetings, bake (or not bake) festive goodies, etc. Your family might choose to skip/alter family traditions for 1 year (or more). If you don't have the energy, time, or finances this holiday season – perhaps gift your family permission to pull back a little, outsource to other family members or lean into the help of other family or friends. What your children will carry with them into the future is the FEELING they have during this time of year versus a busy schedule. Simplistic living can lower your stress and your children will benefit from a greater sense of calm and a stronger feeling of security throughout your family.
- The Gift of Remembering: Many of the children engaged in bereavement groups at Wonders & Worries have come up with many ideas for honoring their loved ones during the holidays including:
- Lighting a candle at every family gathering during the holiday to symbolize that person “present” or close at heart
- Hang a stocking for them as space to fill with written notes, special drawings during the holiday season
- Donate time or money to a cause that your loved one cared for
- Have a “favorites date” where you make their favorite dish, watch a favorite movie, or participate in a loved one’s favorite activity.
- Plant a tree
- Release a balloon
- Write a letter/song to your loved one
- Make a new tradition
- Schedule time for quiet-to laugh or cry or share
- Write down the special gifts that your loved one gave you or something that they taught you and then share it or teach it to someone else you love
- Make a holiday ornament for them on your tree
- Create a physical activity such as a tree toss, advent punch calendar, holiday music freeze dance representing all silly things you remember about that person
- Connect with those that loved them
It very likely will take time to find the right “gift” to connect with your child. Be patient and kind with yourself. Remember that you are doing the important work of modeling to your children that traditions can change, and families won’t falter; disappointments may happen, and loved ones will rally; cancer may be present, but your tribe can do hard things together.
Cancer can’t take away the gifts that really matter like resiliency and love. Those gifts build endless connections and create legacy that lasts a thousand lifetimes.
Through the ups and downs of navigating chronic illness… we will, together.
Julie May joins the Wonders & Worries team with over 18 years of experience as a Child Life Specialist. She currently supports children and families primarily through the cofacilitation of a monthly, teen group with her colleagues. Additionally, she spearheads the launch of one of the organization’s newest tools, Wondercast, a community collaborative podcast, highlighting resources and stories for families navigating the complexities of chronic illness.
Julie is a small business owner, local community writer, wife, and mom to four, silly Austinites. She thanks all the stars in the sky that when she grew up, she became a professional in play. Paint on your face, toys in your hands, tiny person for company… and their imagination’s the limit. No better gig.
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