Going back to school as a working, single parent is hard. Actually, just being a single parent is a lot of work, but add in late night online classes and hours of reading and writing and you’re left with very little downtime. I knew pursuing my master’s degree would be time consuming but I had no idea how regimented my life would become. Nearly every minute of my day is scheduled and accounted for, which unfortunately means I’ve had less time to devote to writing my blog. Add in holiday blues, and I just haven’t had it in me…until this week.

On most days, just after dinner each evening, my 4-year-old son and I sit together at the kitchen table doing our homework. He’ll practice writing his letters and cutting out shapes while I read up on psychological assessments and write papers about the etiology and diagnosis of mental health disorders. After homework, we make time to watch a show, play games or build LEGOs before we start his bedtime routine.

Last Friday after dinner my son and I put on our pajamas and snuggled up on the couch under our favorite fuzzy throw blanket. The room was cozy with warm lighting from our Christmas tree and the candle I lit earlier filled the air with the scent of white birch. It should have been a peaceful and relaxing night, but I was distracted and sad. My grandfather had passed away just two days prior and I was fighting back tears as I reminisced about my childhood and tried to mentally prepare myself for the difficulty of attending his funeral which was to take place the following morning.

Distracted as I was, I sat on our couch with my son and attempted to watch YouTube videos of kids’ science experiments on his iPad. He was astounded and wide-eyed seeing how needles could penetrate a balloon without popping it. He cheered excitedly as borax, Elmer’s glue and iron filings turned into magnetic slime. But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t share in his enthusiasm.

Sensing my solemn mood, my sweet boy suggested we have a dance party instead. He knows how much I love dance parties. They happen regularly at our house. We dance when we’re happy, we dance to release stress and other times we dance when we need to “let go”. Usually when we have dance parties, my son wants to be the DJ playing the Madagascar soundtrack, Bruno Mars or Megan Trainor. This time, however, he suggested that I choose our playlist.

Without hesitation, I turned on our Bluetooth speaker, opened Spotify on my phone and searched for a bluegrass song from 1979 by Ricky Skaggs called “Baby Girl”. My grandpa played it often for me when I was little. I found the song, pressed play and waited for my son to snarl and tell me – as he often does – that the songs I like aren’t cool. When the sound of a banjo filled the speaker, he listened carefully and watched silently as tears spilled from my eyes. I hadn’t heard or thought about that song in years, but I sang it softly word-for-word while my son held my hand and wiped my wet cheeks with his sleeve.

I played the song a couple more times before my son spoke. He looked at me with his little hazel eyes and motioned for me to pick him up. He placed his skinny arms around my neck, touched his forehead to mine and said, “Mommy, it’s okay to be sad. Everyone is sad sometimes. But when you’re ready to stop being sad, I will help you think happy thoughts.”

I tilted my head to the side and asked, “Where did you learn that?”

He replied sweetly, “You taught me that mommy. When I have to get on the bus and I don’t want to leave you, you tell me to think happy thoughts until I get to see you again. It helps me when I am sad and I bet it will help you when you miss papaw, too.”

I know at four years old my son doesn’t fully understand the concept of death or the painful void it leaves behind, but his simple and thoughtful words brought me comfort nonetheless.

The holidays are a tough time of year for me. The older I get, the harder they seem to become. This year, however, as I think about the loved ones who have passed on, the friendships that have ended, and the traditions that have faded, I’ve decided I will do as my son suggested. I will think happy thoughts. I will cherish my memories. I will allow myself to live in the moment. I will make more time for dance parties. I will love harder. I will find joy in the here and now. And I will look forward to what is yet to come.

Erin Stroup has been the Development Director at KPCC Counseling since 2014. She’s the author of the First World Problems blog and a Families Motivating Recovery support group leader.