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Grandfamilies – Celebrating The Holidays

Grandfamilies – celebrating the holidays

For the 2.6 million grandparents raising their grandchildren across the U.S. the holidays can be a time for both celebration and pain.


The circumstances that led their grandchildren to come into their care were often traumatic for the children and the grandparents. Finding healthy ways to celebrate the holidays while respecting the painful emotions they may conjure up can be difficult.

Sonya, a grandparent raising her grandchildren knows this well. Sonya lives in Maryland and is a member of the Navajo nation. Her son was tragically murdered the day after Thanksgiving in 2010.” As a family, it took us a long time to be part of this festive occasion in other family  settings. We usually honor my son by going to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain where we say prayers and follow our  traditions. Sometimes we just cook my son’s favorite foods. It just depends on how I and the kids feel.” For Sonya, spending time together as a family and remembering her son is what is important.

For Joan in Oregon, creating new traditions has been helpful to her and her grandson who she has adopted.  After experiencing abuse and neglect in his parents’ home, Joan’s grandson came to live with her just a few days before Christmas. Joan explains, “When he came to us that Christmas, I had already packed away all of the ornaments I had while my daughter (his mother) was growing up—it was too painful.  We started making new memories that are hearts treasures today.   The very first day he came to us, he (sitting in the child’s seat of a grocery cart) and I went and bought two churches and a house for a Christmas village.  Every year it became a treasured outing to go together and find one or more pieces, even after he grew up when he’d come home from college or after he married. Recently I scoured Goodwill and second-hand stores for same vintage additions. This year I’m passing the village on to him, but I know we’ll take his daughters and go looking for something new for our ever-growing tradition.”

Whether it’s finding new traditions or spending time together in ritual remembering loved ones, thoughtful planning for the holidays can help make them rich and meaningful for grandfamilies.

Ideas to help families raising children who have experienced loss or trauma celebrate the holidays together:

  • Value Family Ritual – Rituals help us connect to each other, ease pain and move from one place to another. For children who have experienced loss and trauma, participating in family rituals can be a critical part of healing.  Be thoughtful about what rituals children may have had during the holidays before they came to live with you, that they may want to continue. It’s also okay to set aside things and aspects of ritual that are painful to continue.   For children who have experienced trauma, a therapist can work with you and the child to identify ways to continue or adapt past rituals in a healthy way.
  • Give permission to feel sad – Holidays are a time for celebration. They can also bring up painful memories or feelings of loss or even anger about other family members. Acknowledge to your grandchild that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes and that you feel sad too.  Allow yourself and your grandchild to spend some time together talking about your feelings can release tension and help you both enjoy and celebrate your holiday traditions.
  • Create new traditions – Traditions give children a sense of comfort and connection and something special to look forward to. You can start new traditions even while respecting those from your grandchild’s time living with their parents or others before you. Begin making a new kind of cookie together, take a special trip, or share and play together a toy or game that you loved during the holidays as a child.


GRANDFAMILIESJaia Peterson Lent is Deputy Executive Director of Generations United, a national organization dedicated to improving lives. Home to the National Center on Grandfamilies, Generations United is a leading voice for issues affecting families headed by grandparents or other relatives.

For more from Jaia…

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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