Missing a Parent During the Holidays

Fireworks light up the sky during the inauguration of a giant christmas tree at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Rio de Janei
Fireworks light up the sky during the inauguration of a giant christmas tree at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 1, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Growing up, the holidays were defined by my parents. My mom's Barbra Streisand Christmas albums, fluffing the tree with my dad, picking favorite Christmas ornaments, baking cookies, sitting with my dad in the brass section for the Christmas cantata, pimento cheese sandwiches in the church basement between Messiah performances, midnight Christmas Eve services...

My parents worked behind the scenes to make the holidays a time of joy, faith and peace for our family.

But even as I cherish my memories of parental presence, I think of those whose memories and current realities include parental absence, where family gatherings highlight a missing member. Although they may still savor some semblance of family togetherness, that joy becomes tempered by the acute awareness of the missing parent; absent due to death, divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, even incarceration. Instead of peace and joy, the holidays may usher in a time of navigating a minefield of broken promises that line the history of our families. Missing someone at the holidays can be especially lonely as the awareness of that absence can be relentlessly palpable for the one grieving but the naming of that absence silenced by shame, discomfort, inability and even the mere busyness of all those around us.

Concerning death, my years in hospice care taught me that many good resources, both written in books or accessible on websites as well as offered in person in community support groups or one-on-one counseling, exist for those grieving the absence of a deceased loved one at the holidays. Words, pictures, music and intentional care from those who love you can help you write a new story after the death of a loved one. As many grieving Gen Xers explained in recent interviews about 21st-century grief and loss, the first few holidays after the death of a parent or stepparent often include both grieving the world of how things used to be and expending great energy to create new a new world of rituals and family practices. Where does everyone sit at the Thanksgiving table now? Who will I shop with this year? Who will wrap the presents? Who will say the prayers? Do I need or want to include a stepparent when my biological parent is deceased? Who am I now? The mindless rhythm of how things have always been done unravels when a key player is gone. This process of knitting together a new perception of the world without the physical presence of a parent demands mental, emotional and spiritual attention. Many friends and acquaintances in our neighborhoods, schools, and offices may be currently engaged in this exhausting work this holiday season. For those of us not grieving a death, we can offer to listen, simply listen, to what a grieving person misses, what joy they find in their memories, and what struggles they now face. This simple act of quiet presence can make a big difference in the journey of one who is grieving.

But death is not the only life occurrence that can separate us from a loved one at the holidays. For many individuals, the divorce of their parents means that someone -- a mom or a dad, a brother or a sister, a stepbrother or sister, or a stepparent -- will be missing from the holiday celebration while new people maybe added -- stepparents or siblings, a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend. Due to your own divorce, your ex-spouse or your ex-spouse's parents (your children's grandparents) could now be missing or your children will not be with you. With divorce, parallel parent worlds take shape, with children switching between them, with celebrations being repeated at different homes with different players. As children of divorce report, the stress of journeying between one family world and another never goes away no matter your age. The version of who you are in your dad's house, with his rules, rituals and expectations, and who you are in your mom's house, with her rules, rituals and expectations, are never fully reconciled, so in a sense, at every holiday there is a part of YOU that is missing as well, the other parent's version of you. The task and burden of uniting those two versions of yourself while traversing between two family worlds, never ends until death parts a parent from you.

Lastly, I think of those who are missing family members due to incarceration this holiday season. Although many of us may not think of those who grieve a missing loved one in jail or prison, according to a recent PEW report one in 28 children under 18 has a parent behind bars, more than 2.7 million minor children. Staggering.

Several Saturdays ago I spent the morning volunteering at our local prison as part of the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois "Storybook Project." Churches from across the state and country donate children's books and we as volunteers bring them into the prison system where inmates get to choose a book for their child and then sit with one of us as we record their reading. We then mail the book and CD to their child or children. This particular Saturday was our last time to visit before the holidays, so these incarcerated parents were choosing a book as a present for their child and sharing with their child why they were sorry that they would be missing from the holidays. Seasoned volunteers taught me to encourage the inmate to trace his or her hand in the book, a sacred emblem of parental presence that can travel from the world behind bars to the world of their child. Regardless of how we feel about those incarcerated, their children pay a steep and undeserved price as they live in exile between a parent behind bars and the world of adults who step in to parent them in freedom. A simple handprint or the voice of your mom or dad reading to you from behind bars, can be a sacrament of parental presence, healing, and hope.

As I held this list of grieving individuals in my mind and heart and thought of our common humanity, I was reminded of a beautiful and honest prayer of thanksgiving by pastor and poet, Maren C. Tarabassi -- a prayer that perhaps we could share with those missing a loved one this holiday season due to death or divorce or incarceration:

"For troubles that shape and sharpen our patience,
For doubts that let faith moments shine,
And for confusions that keep our lives from being rigid.
For sufferings that help us share another's grief,
For fears that mark real terror in the world,
And for pains that open our eyes to joy.
For sorrows that join our hands to hope
And for loneliness that leads to the heart of God.
For all these gifts by which we have become more human, we give thanks.
Let our thanks reach out and embrace
The daily, small ingratitudes of our lives."

To read more on grief and loss by Amy Ziettlow visit www.familyscholars.org. To follow the research behind the future book, 'The GenX Caregiver,' follow Amy Ziettlow and Elizabeth Marquardt on Twitter.