When the Holidays Hurt: 3 Ways Single Parents Can Cope

By Michelle Donnelly
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Single Parent During the Holidays
When your family is broken, the holidays hurt. Here are three ways single parents can cope during the holiday season.

I’m a huge fan of Thanksgiving — yes, that holiday most people hurry through in favor of commencing their Christmas celebrations. Before my divorce, I had created a bevy of unique Thanksgiving traditions for my little family. Before sunrise, we awoke to don our goofiest Thanksgiving Day garb and dashed downtown to participate in our city’s annual Turkey Trot. Afterward, we’d watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. I was always busy in the kitchen during the show but would stop to watch the Radio City Rockettes. Even as a young girl, I was completely mesmerized by their glittering costumes and sky-high synchronicity.

But the glitter faded the first year I spent Thanksgiving without my kids, post-divorce. As the day neared, I couldn’t fathom carrying out my favorite traditions without my children. Every alternative I considered just seemed to highlight the fact that I was going to be alone.

Frustratingly determined, I decided what I really needed to do was create some new solo Thanksgiving traditions. I made plans to volunteer at a local church to serve Thanksgiving meals to those in need. I figured serving others would be a fantastic new way to celebrate my holiday and help me cope as a single parent! Unfortunately, I arrived late that morning, and I ended up a lonely door greeter. I sheepishly looked on as the guests and other volunteers laughed and hugged, surrounded by food and festivity. I felt defeated but stubbornly kept my post, refusing to let my feelings get the best of me.

Later that afternoon, I arrived at my parents’ house just in time for dinner. As my dad prayed, another tradition I had forgotten about crossed my mind. After the prayer, we would take turns sharing what we were thankful for. At that moment, all I could think about was the fact that the three little blessings I was most thankful for weren’t standing there with me.

Mustering up enough courage (or maybe just good manners) to get through our circle time, and I excused myself to the laundry room. I thought I had escaped, but my dad had noticed me and followed behind. I turned, and he hugged me. And I just cried.

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

When the Holidays Hurt

For some of us, the holidays are less sparkly, less sugary sweet, less everything. When your family is broken, 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 serve as 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 should aspire to 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.”

Grieving has its time. And we can’t rush it, even if 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.” But if we skip the mourning, we shortchange our experience of receiving God’s comfort in our grief.

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 lavish me with His comfort in my sorrow.

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Three Ways Single Parents Can Cope During the Holidays

This year, while I will have my children for Thanksgiving, this will be the first Christmas I wake up without them. Thankfully, last year’s Thanksgiving Day debacle has given me new insights into ways we can approach these situations when the holidays hurt.

Celebrate

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 too uncomfortable to attend all the 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. Coping as a single parent, 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 first Christmas alone. If things don’t go as planned when my kids leave the night of Christmas Eve, my parents already know I may be showing up on their doorstep with a sleeping bag and Christmas movies in hand.

In this season of your life, when you’re coping as a single parent, 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.

© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 

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