By Teske Vance
The death of a loved one brings about a whole mix of emotions that can be extremely difficult to manage. Grief is a tricky thing. It may encompass any range of emotions, sometimes plaguing the griever with a jumbled mess of feelings, to be left in a haze. It sneaks up on us through the lyrics of a song or the scent of a baked apple pie, which mom could always perfect. It lurks beyond the aisles of the grocery store when you are convinced that you’ve just seen granddad shuffle around the corner. Sneaky grief confronts us when we least expect it, bringing to light the reality of our loved ones absence, causing time to stand still, while others seemingly move on with their lives so easily.
As the holidays fast approach, it can be difficult to fathom what this year’s traditions will be like as an empty chair sits around the table.
Who’s going to make mom’s famous cornbread?
Where will the family gather this year, now that grandma is gone?
Who will pass out gifts from under the tree? That was always dad’s job.
Should we celebrate at all this year?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, or the many others that may be whirling in your mind as you contemplate moving forward. The absence of a loved one who was such an integral party of family gatherings and celebrations begs us to think about how family traditions are challenged and changed. May the following suggestions bring you hope and offer some helpful considerations as you navigate the weight of the holiday season without your loved one.
Make a Plan
Do not wait for the day to arrive to determine what your family will do. Make a plan in advance, and stick to it! Ask yourself and family members to think about the traditions you’ve had in the past and how or if you will continue them. Will someone else need to do the cooking? Will the location need to be changed? These are questions that can sometimes sneak up on us, so consider them ahead of time and make a decision as a family as to how you will proceed. Determine what is important to you and work to make those values a priority. If it’s togetherness that you need, then make a point to be together.
Don’t Avoid the Elephant in the Room
It’s not uncommon for families to gather for the holidays after a loved one has died and act as though absolutely nothing is different. I challenge you to speak your loved ones name. Break the awkward silence that so often ensues and share a treasured holiday memory with him/her or tell that funny story. There may be tears amid the laughter, and that is okay.
Include the Children
When a loved one dies, we often underestimate children’s understanding. Adults may try to shield them from information by way of protection. The truth is, children know far more than we give them credit for, and oftentimes, they are the ones who teach us a thing or two about how to do grief work well. Let the children offer their ideas for ways to honor or ask them to share a favorite memory or story. My family has incorporated a tradition of making ornaments at our Thanksgiving meal, always to include memorial ornaments for the loved ones in our immediate family who have gone before us. By acknowledging these important family members through an activity led by the children, we memorialize them in a meaningful way.
Consider Ways to Honor
There are many ways to pay tribute to the legacy of your loved one around the holiday season. Reflect on their personality and how they would want to be remembered. Maybe the generosity of your loved one would prompt you to “pay it forward” and help another family this holiday season. If it was a child who died, perhaps consider donating toys to a children’s hospital or school. If grandma loved to decorate during the holidays, pull out her decorations and dawn the halls of your home as a family. Light a candle in memory of your loved one, symbolizing remembrance and the light that they brought into your lives. There are countless ways to honor, but the key is to do something that is meaningful for you.
Finally, be present and ever mindful of your needs during this season. Try not to get so wrapped up in the busyness of the season that you neglect doing the business of grieving as a family.
About the Author
Teske has a passion for working with those who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, shaped by her personal, educational, and professional background. With a BA in Social Work and Family Services, and an MS and PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, Teske has worked in end-of-life care as a Hospice Social Worker and previously served as Director of Hamilton’s Academy of Grief and Loss. Teske also co-founded and led a non-profit support group for 8 years, Mommies with Hope, designed for women who experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss; a topic on which she has researched extensively and published two books. Teske is excited to be a part of Amanda the Panda and to carry on the longstanding history of bringing hope and healing to grieving families in the community and beyond.