Advice from the Children’s of Alabama pastoral care team to navigate this holiday season

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Mobile Blessings Unit at Children's of Alabama with the pastoral care team
Chaplains saw how COVID-19 was taking a toll on staff and came up with the idea for a Staff Care Cart, a mobile blessings unit. Photo via Children’s of Alabama

As we prepare for the most unusual holiday season ever, we reached out to Herb Robertson, Director of Pastoral Care at Children’s of Alabama, for ways to navigate the rest of 2020.

“This will be a holiday season not like any other in our lifetime.”

Herb Robertson, MDiv, Director of Pastoral Care at Children’s of Alabama

1. Practice kindness

how you can help Children's of Alabama
So many ways to help. Graphic via Children’s of Alabama

According to Robertson, practicing kindness starts with being kind to yourself and practicing self-care. From there it extends outwards toward co-workers, family—and even that guy who just cut you off in traffic.

“Practicing kindness comes from a place of awareness that the people around you—whether you’re in a hospital, in the supermarket or on the highway trying to get home—around you are more than just what you see of their behavior in any particular moment.”

He elaborated that if someone at Children’s behaves in a way that’s difficult for hospital staff to manage, they strive to see them as a family who’s trying to make it through whatever they’re dealing with, vs. seeing them as a “difficult family.” 

And really, in the end, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? 

Robertson concluded with two key takeaways: 

  1. “I don’t know everything that’s going on for all the people around me.”
  2. “I affirm that they are more than the behavior I’m experiencing in this moment.”

2. Make space for grief

making space for grief
Grief. Photo via Unsplash

“Grief is how we respond to any loss. While every holiday season includes some grief, this year, there may be even more reason to make space for our grief (ours and that of others).”

You may find yourself mourning a death this season, or the loss of familiar rituals and gatherings with family and friends. 

Name the grief

Making room for grief with a candle. Photo via Unsplash

The first step is to name the grief:

“I miss being with Grandma for Christmas this year.” 

With kids, Robertson recommends being an adult in their life who pays attention enough to know that something about this person looks, sounds or feels different. It takes a bit more work to help kids get to a place of recognizing or saying “Yeah, I really miss Grandma this year. I’m sad she can’t come over for Christmas.”

Tell stories

people sitting around a table
Even if it’s just your immediate family this year, you can still share stories. Photo via Unsplash

“Storytelling is a huge piece of how people process and manage grief,” according to Robertson. “Let’s remember this person together. What was your favorite thing about them?” 

Especially with children, he explains that storytelling can help you model how to make space for grief and then invite them safely into processing their grief. 

I can vouch for the effectiveness of this approach from my own family. When my Dad died in 2015, my kids were still very young, but they remembered certain things like going to get him a root beer for a root beer float, or him reading to them. Around the holidays, we often share these memories, which then lead to other stories and a sense of shared memory. 

Be intentional

singing hymns is a great way to remember a loved one this holiday season
Singing favorite hymns or songs together is a great way to remember a loved one. Photo via Unsplash

Every family is different, so the same process won’t work for everyone, but it’s good to be intentional about how you want to make space for grief this holiday season. 

Here are some ideas to consider: 

  • Leave an empty chair at the table to honor the person who’s no longer there
  • Light a candle in their honor
  • Recite a favorite verse or sing a favorite hymn of the person who’s gone 
  • Acknowledge that they’re not there and that that stinks

Recognize that everyone is different, and even within a family everyone won’t have the same needs or desires. For example, Robertson explained, “for folks who process their grief a little more internally and a little more in isolation, you shouldn’t expect them to want to light a candle and lead a sharing time.”

If you need more structured support around grief and loss this holiday season, reach out to The Amelia Center at Children’s of Alabama today

3. Find safe ways to be in community

mask messages with the pastoral care team at Children's of Alabama
The Pastoral Care team provided paper ‘masks’ for people to write messages of encouragement. The 500+ ‘mask messages’ were linked together in a chain and are on display in the hospital so staff can see it when they report for work. Photo via Children’s of Alabama

“One of the saddest things (to me) about life with COVID-19 is that the virus thrives on the same thing we thrive on: being together.

It’s important to be intentional about rituals that matter—figure out what really matters and how you can make that happen in the safest ways possible. Letting things happen like they’ve always happened won’t be as effective this year.”

Herb Robertson

If you or someone you know is at Children’s of Alabama this holiday season, one of the twelve chaplains on the pastoral care team will likely reach out first. If not, you can request a chaplain visit through your bedside nurse, or call the office at 205-638-9090. 

Hop over here for more information on the Pastoral Care Team at Children’s of Alabama. If you need support for a child or teen who is dealing with a major loss, reach out to The Amelia Center. 

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Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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