I'm pretty sure that Norman Rockwell never imagined a Thanksgiving in which a 45-year-old woman and her 14-year-old twin sons climbed into an inner tube only to be sent hurtling down a water-driven tube on something aptly called the Howlin' Tornado.

But that's just what my family did for Thanksgiving this year, staggeringly the third since my husband and their father died of cancer.

Under the best of circumstances, holidays can be hard for families. Do you spend it with his family or yours? What if Aunt Millie inquires again why you aren't remarried?

But for a family dealing with death, divorce or deployment, navigating the holidays can be heartbreaking and exhausting. For parents, who must get themselves through and find a way to re-create the joy of the season for their kids, the idea of keeping traditions alive in transition can be overwhelming.

One woman who had lost her husband eight months before Christmas was determined that that first holiday without him would be just like all the others. She prepared his favorite dishes for Christmas dinner, set the table exactly as they always had. She did everything in her power to make it seem like a normal Christmas for herself, her children, her parents. Except that midway through the meal, the crushing reality of the one thing that wasn't in her power overwhelmed her, and she fled the table in tears.

Finding the balance between the old and the new and keeping old traditions alive while creating new memories is the challenge that families in transition face at the holidays, says Cynthia Glass, a clinical social worker from suburban Washington. She suggests that families deal with the issue straight on, perhaps by having a family meeting before the full swirl of the holiday frenzy gets under way.

"Get the whole family together in a fun way. Maybe around a fireplace or a fire pit; have some music but no TV, and ask everyone to think beforehand what the holidays mean this year. What's the good part? What's the hard part? What do you wish would happen this year?"

No one should be forced to talk, Glass advises. But everyone should be encouraged to acknowledge the loss as much as they feel comfortable. Families need to "embrace the ritual but also acknowledge that things are different … that things will never again be the same."

The holidays can be particularly difficult for young children, who may wish that the season of miracles will bring Mom back or allow parents to live together happily again. Adults do children no favor by allowing them to dream that the impossible will come true, Glass says.

"You need to be honest with a child who is asking Santa for Daddy to come back. Talk gently about it. Don't deny the child's feelings," but explain that some things, no matter how much we wish for them, just can't happen.

But the holidays can also be a wonderful time for starting traditions that recognize the new family situation, Glass says. Some of her suggestions:

— Honor the empty seat if there has been a death or deployment. Put together pictures or sayings about the person who is absent. Remember that it's OK to laugh.

— Divorce is particularly difficult because many times the sense of loss is compounded by a sense of rejection. Even something as simple as adding candles to the dinner table can signal that you are moving forward.

— Create a new tradition: perhaps taking a family walk in the woods.

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— Cut back on presents. Of course, you need to make sure the kids have a magical season. But shopping can be stressful. Explain to adults that you're not going to put yourself in a situation — such as a shopping mall with holiday revelers — where you might feel overwhelmed.

— Spend time with people who "get it." Don't force yourself to be around people who make the holidays harder for you, even if those people are family members.

— Do something spiritual. Not necessarily religious but something that makes you realize you are part of something bigger, something that allows you to connect to art, nature or other people.

— Realize you aren't alone in needing help. Glass says it's especially helpful for children to understand that they are not alone in their struggle. And that helping people in a charitable way really helps yourself, too.

As for our family's very non-traditional trip to Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va., where we played in the water park, gorged ourselves on delicious food and laughed a great deal, Glass says that sometimes a change of scenery is just what a family needs to find a way to create new holiday rituals.

The day after Thanksgiving, as we ate breakfast in front of a fire, one of my sons asked, "Can we do this for Thanksgiving next year?"

It seems a new tradition had been born.

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