The fall and winter holidays can be particularly difficult for bereaved families. Marty Tousley is a psychiatric nurse and certified bereavement counselor. In her article, Getting Through the Holidays, she says, “Holidays can create feelings of dread and anxiety in those who are bereaved. The cliched images of family togetherness and the often unrealistic expectations of a season filled with picture-perfect, joyful gatherings can cause tremendous stress for those who are not grieving, let alone for those in the midst of the painful, isolating experience of loss.”
The first, and most important thing is that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to want to remember a deceased family member.
There are many things that can be done which may help family members to cope. These could be done not only by family members in memory of their loved one, but also by friends. A wonderful program I discovered is the Kindness Project by the MISS Foundation. This started in 1997 as a way for bereaved families to honor their deceased child and help themselves heal. You can order kindness cards from their web site and include one with a donation of any kind.
It can be something simple and inexpensive. Pay for a cup of coffee for the person in back of you in line at the coffee shop, hand the clerk a kindness card, and ask them to give it to the customer along with the coffee.
There is a street vendor selling newspapers at one of the large intersections I pass through on my way to work. Occasionally when I catch the red light, I hand him a dollar and a kindness card for a car behind me. On the anniversary of my granddaughter’s stillbirth, I bring a box of donut holes (to represent the hole in my heart from my granddaughter’s death) to work and put it in the break room with a kindness card. Leaving the parking lot at a bereavement conference, I was handed a kindness card and told that the person in front of me had paid my parking fee.
Grocery stores often give a free turkey around Thanksgiving with the accumulation of a certain dollar amount of receipts. If you aren’t up to cooking this year, you might consider donating the free turkey to a community center that provides meals during the holidays, or to one of the many food drives that occur in November and December. A family might decide they’d like to volunteer at a shelter or church that provides meals.
Try and make whatever purchases you are able to handle mindful ones. Special ornaments made or purchased for Christmas can be very meaningful. Many community agencies sell ornaments as a fund raiser. Many agencies and charities sell holiday greeting cards as well. A family I know, determined that their deceased baby not be forgotten, uses a scrapbooking stamp of an angel alongside the names of the other family members when they sign the holiday cards they send.
You could decorate a wreath with items symbolic of the deceased family member. One year, a friend used her decorated wreath as the centerpiece on her dining table. She laid it flat and placed a candle in the middle. Many families prepare Christmas stockings each year for children and grandchildren. Several years I filled one with baby items and donated it in Maddy’s memory. A family might want to hang a stocking and have each family member place something in it-this helps younger children by giving them something concrete to do to express their love and grief. It also acknowledges the person who is no longer present physically.
A Jewish family might want to “name” the Hanukkah candles as they are lit each night. The shamas, or main candle which lights all the others, could be lit in memory of a parent or grandparent, or could be dedicated to the love and sense of family. Then, as it lights the other candles, they could be lit in memory of a younger family member.
Give yourself permission to change rituals. You can discontinue ones that are painful, you can add new ones, or you might choose to have a holiday of solitude and remembrance. Rituals don’t have to be formal or involved. They can actually be something you do by yourself, such as lighting a special candle. Be kind to yourself. Set limits and boundaries if you are unable to deal with the holidays.
Grief is draining; mourning takes a lot of energy. Don’t feel obligated to do the same big meal or event because “everybody expects it”. That just gives family and friends permission to adopt our society’s attitude that grief is something to be gotten over.
The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting, held on December 12, 2010, unites family and friends around the globe in lighting candles for one hour to honor and remember children who have died at any age from any cause. As candles are lit at 7 p.m. local time, hundreds of thousands of persons commemorate and honor the memory of children in a way that transcends all ethnic, cultural, religious, and political boundaries. This creates a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone. Hundreds of formal candle lighting events are held and thousands of informal candle lightings are conducted in homes as families gather in quiet remembrance of children who have died, but will never be forgotten.
A dear friend whose son was born still in 1999 asks family members to make a donation in her son’s memory when they buy gifts for her living children. Maddy’s maternal grandmother is a self-confessed shopaholic. She gathered up all the toys she had purchased in anticipation of her first grandchild and donated them to Toys for Tots. Some families have shared with me that they donate a toy or article of clothing appropriate for the age their child would be each year.
I realize that I am not being culturally diverse by my references primarily to Christmas. Many of the ideas I’ve suggested, especially donations of food or clothing, are generic enough to be considered for any holiday. The most important thing to keep in mind is that families crave remembrance and recognition.