Holidays in Prison:Surviving Christmas
Surviving Christmas with a Loved One in Prison
Whether you’ve been coping for decades or your spouse / child / parent just went to prison for the first time, living through the holidays when someone you love is in prison just plain sucks. Christmas in prison can be a stressful time, but you will get through it.
As an adult in the world, with a Loved One in Prison
If the person you are missing was your spouse, parent, or child – in other words someone who was integral in your life – this time of year can be stressful for lots of reasons.
You just plain miss them. Just because they might have done something bad doesn’t mean we don’t love them – and fiercely. You don’t have to delude yourself about who they were or who they are to justify loving them and missing them. If you beat yourself up for loving someone – stop it. It’s ok. You should never feel bad for caring about someone – ever. It doesn’t matter whether they deserve it or not.
Your family might get on you about caring for them, missing them, and trying to support them. It’s all too common for families to fight about relationships with a loved one in prison. Chances are you are not going to resolve all the underlying opinions. Your parents might want to protect from being hurt again or your kids might want you to visit a lot more than you do. Either way the stress can be destructive, especially during the holidays.
Your best bet is to negotiate peace beforehand with your family. If you can, have these conversations before everyone is together. You’ll get more considerate responses one-on-one than you will trying to deal with everyone as a group. Let your family know how you are feeling – and acknowledge they have a right to a different opinion. Tell them you love them; then tell them how your holidays might be affected by the situation. Will you be making a visit to the prison? Will there be a phone call during family get togethers? Are you expecting a letter that you or the kids are going to get excited about? Will the day be especially tough because of his / her absence?
Whatever the case, prepare everyone for it. They’ll respond so much better than if you just run out of the room crying because uncle John sat in the spot that your loved one used to occupy. Many times people do stupid things with the best of intentions. They might try to change traditions, seating arrangements, or even say horrible things in an effort to make things better. Talk about it before you get together.
If you have children with a parent in prison
All kinds of questions will come up at this time of year because they’ll be missing their mom or dad in prison even more than they normally would. Do your best to answer each question as fully as possible given their age. This can be tricky, but it’s necessary. If the child is 9 or 10 and is asking hard questions, you should probably answer them honestly. In the end, you are the best judge, but I can tell you from experience that lying, mis-directing, hiding, prevaricating, pretending, and condescending are a bad idea. Anything short of (age appropriate) truth tends to backfire when it comes to talking about a parent in prison.
Children are naturally self-centered, meaning they see the world as it relates to them. They will blame themselves for things that have nothing to do with them. That guilt will ultimately express itself and usually in very unhealthy ways. Your children see and hear much more than you imagine. If you think you’re hiding something from them you’re probably only deceiving yourself. If you or your child were victims of physical and / or sexual violence you really should seek a counselor for both of you.
Tell your child that you and their absent parent love them very much. Make sure they know it’s not their fault mom or dad isn’t there. They weren’t bad, they didn’t do or say anything, it wasn’t because they asked for something you couldn’t afford, it wasn’t because of their grades or their bed wetting. Their dad / mom made a bad choice and has to live out the consequences. Unfortunately, so do both of you.
Encourage your child to write to their dad or mom in prison if it is appropriate. Encourage them write down every question and every feeling. Help them get it all out.
When you communicate with your loved one in prison
Everyone has to decide for themselves whether and how to continue their relationships when a loved one goes to prison. If you or another family member were a victim of physical or sexual violence by that person, and you are considering maintaining any contact, I suggest counseling first.
First and foremost try to respect the choices that other family members might make. This includes minor children. Everybody can make their own choices about how much contact to have. Click here for a tool that can help you decide that and communicate your choices to your family in prison. Making these decisions explicitly and communicating them to your family member in prison can be a huge relief for everyone. Even if it isn’t exactly what they want to hear, it will relieve the stress of not know. It will also avoid demanding confrontations. Remember, they have little to do but sit and think. They’re waiting for the next time to call, an answer to a letter, money on their books, the next visit, etc.
Encourage writing as the primary method of communication – even if they aren’t good at it yet. Writing has several advantages over every other form of communication available. It’s cheap – even free for most indigent inmates. Even if they have no money they can almost always access pen, paper, and envelope. Writing is also durable! You, and most importantly your kids, can hang onto a letter. You can re-read it. You can imagine the hand that wrote it. You can feel and smell the person who wrote it. It is more alive than anything other than having them home. Voices fade (and say stupid things) and memories do as well. Visits are expensive, short, and can be very stressful at first.
Visit if you can. Have phone calls if you can. Whatever you do, write letters, answer letters, ask for letters, read letters, and write back!
When you do communicate with your family member in prison, it’s ok to acknowledge that it sucks for them too; but don’t let them guilt you into more money, visits, or calls you can’t afford. Remind them, nicely, that you still care enough to have a relationship. Only commit to what you can do. It was their choices that put them there and it is their burden to carry.
You probably didn’t choose to have a family member in prison, but you can choose to make it a transformative and ultimately productive time; even Christmas in prison.