It was Christmas Eve. I sat on the floor next to my 10-year-old grandson in his family’s near empty apartment to say goodbye. They were leaving early Christmas morning. Suddenly, his body started shaking with silent sobs. That did me in. It was one goodbye too many.
Later that evening my younger daughter and I attended the Christmas Eve service at our church. On what should have been one of the happiest nights of the year, I sat in the congregation trying to sing, but all I could think about was my children, my grandchildren, and my great loss. My younger daughter and a friend of mine sat with their arms around me as I cried.
Somehow, I survived that season. Soon I received emailed pictures of where they lived. Once they were connected via FaceTime, we began our real-time communication. I saw their faces. They showed me their house and their rooms. With each international contact, my heart began to heal. I still struggle with special days. Not just Christmas, but also school plays, awards nights and other programs. I want to be with them on Christmas, but I also want to be with them when they graduate.
Here is my caveat. Many parents and grandparents feel the same way I do. There may not be an ocean between them, but they are still separated. I hope my comments will resonate with them as well.
Two things in life have prepared me for being apart from my family:
First, I grew up at least twelve hours away from my grandparents and my parents’ extended family (roughly the amount of time it takes me to get to my own offspring). Although my grandparents were not in another country, they might as well have been. I always wondered what it would have been like to spend Christmas with them.
Second, I have become used to sharing my daughters during the holidays. Beginning when they were tiny, their dad had them for Christmas Eve, I had them for Christmas Day. I had them for Thanksgiving and he had them for Easter. When my children married, the sharing continued, with three holiday destinations, not just two. Now I share my older daughter and her family with another country.
But this lifelong preparation for separation and sharing did nothing to prepare me for saying goodbye to my grandchildren, especially at Christmas. I am at a loss as to how to celebrate Christmas without them. Do I decorate my apartment? Do I go out of town? FaceTime can be iffy because of access from their side of the world. But when we do connect, I sit down with my older daughter and, I confess, I look at her with awe. My grandchildren easily move in and out of our conversation and at my daughter’s prompting, they tell me about their Christmas, what they did, and who gave them what. I tell them my pressies are in the mail. Because I am that person. But I see their faces and I know they are okay. Knowing they are okay makes me okay.
I don’t have many great tips because I still don’t handle it very well. But here are two: One for the family abroad and one for the family at home:
Moms and Dads, give your children one-on-one time with their grandparents. Suggest what they might want to say so they aren’t suddenly struck mute. If FaceTime (or similar type of communication) is available to you, take us on your Christmas outings so we see how you celebrate. The time difference can be prohibitive, so plan ahead.
Grandparents, take joy in the joy of your grandchildren. Picture them relishing their holidays. Schedule your face-to-face time. Think about what you are going to say to them.
So that sums it up: separation, sharing, and scheduling. Try to get your gifts in the mail promptly and carry your credit card and passport with you at all times, just in case.
What ideas or tips do you have for involving grandparents and extended family members at the holidays while overseas?