It is the time of year when people start talking about “the holidays.” Diwali is in October and November. For some, It is right after Halloween that Christmas decorations come out and Hanukkah candles are on display. Others celebrate the solstice or Kwanza. For many, the darkness has literally come earlier in the day and the weather may be changing. While viewed as celebratory, holidays can be quite challenging when there has been a death in the family. For some, Thanksgiving ushers in the beginning of a holiday season that can feel relentless in the way it impacts our emotions.
If you observe the holiday, Thanksgiving Day has traditionally been a special day of the year dedicated to acknowledging our gratitude, sharing a meal, and considering what we are thankful for. It may be hard to feel thankful for anything when an important person has died. This year, the pandemic may mean fewer people at the table, maybe only immediate household members, or a decision not to do anything special at all. Even deciding to do nothing can become overwhelming at times, especially when combined with so many other aspects of the day that might highlight the absence of a person in our life who has died. Thanksgiving foods, decorations, and traditions can be comforting, but they can also be deeply triggering to those grieving a death.
Perhaps it might mean finding new ways to connect with friends and family (Pie and zoom? Quiet time with a special movie?). With so many traditions and expectations surrounding Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, the loss of an important person in your life may be felt even more intensely. It’s important to give ourselves permission to do what feels right for ourselves and our families. While it’s good to make plans for coping with grief during this time of year, we also need to remember to be flexible and take care of ourselves. Grief is unique for every individual, even within the same family, and each person is the expert on his/her own grief and what feels right.
Here are some tips on how you can help take care of yourself and those close to you during Thanksgiving and during the holiday season to come.
Acknowledge that the holidays may be different
Different holiday activities, decorations, and foods may remind you of the person who died and how things will be different without them. Acknowledging your feelings about the holidays can give you and your family a chance to think about certain events or days that might be more difficult for you, and to discuss how you can best support each other.
The anticipation of the day may be more difficult than the day itself. Having a plan ahead of time can help ease some of the anxiety and fear of the unknown. Talk with close family and friends and let them know what you might want or need. Be sure to include the children in your planning, since they are also missing the person who died and may have special holiday activities that would be meaningful to them.
While having a plan can help, give yourself permission to change your mind and do what is best for you and your family in the moment. It may help to have back-up plans or to let friends and family know ahead of time that you may need to leave a gathering if you are feeling overwhelmed. Different members of the family may not all feel the same way. Communicate with each other so that you actually know what family members want and need.
Consider what new & old traditions might be meaningful to you
It may be comforting to participate in holiday traditions you shared with the person who died, but you may also decide you want to take a break from traditions or create new ones. It may be that during COVID, there may have to be new ways to be together. It can be helpful to talk together to see if there are ways to honor the person that feels meaningful to you, such as setting a special plate aside, decorating a special ornament, or donating a gift in their memory to charity. You could also make them a part of your holiday gathering by lighting a special candle, taking turns sharing memories, or designating a space where you can place notes, food, and special memory objects or decorations.
Ideas for Commemoration at the Holidays
Each person has the opportunity to write down a memory of the person who died and places it in a bowl. The bowl is passed around and every person takes a random piece of paper out and reads the memory. When the memory is read, the person who wrote that memory lights a votive candle in the center of the table or places a flower in the vase.
This activity may be helpful for children or adults who are shy or unwilling to share their particular memories. Having someone else read it may be less threatening. If the child who wrote the memory doesn’t want to light a candle, then the person reading the memory may light the candle instead.
Find a recipe that the person who died liked to make or eat. What was special about that recipe? Work as a family to make the food together. Try to give each family member a specific job, but don’t force it if someone doesn’t want to participate. Share the memory food at your holiday meal.
Decorate a Vase for the Table Centerpiece
Let the children decorate a glass vase using permanent markers or glass markers for the centerpiece. Do not put the flowers in the vase, but have them near the vase. Whoever wants to share a memory can place the flower in the vase as they share their memories. You can also use votive candles or you can place stones instead of flowers in a glass vase.
Create a Photo Collage of the Person who Died
The immediate family could each choose a photo they want to put on the collage.
Create a Memory Box
Decorate the memory box. This box could be filled with photographs or objects that remind you of the person who died. The memory box could also be used as a centerpiece or placed in a special place during the holidays.
Volunteering as Remembering
Is there something that the person who died loved to do to help others? Maybe they were active in a particular organization or devoted their time to helping a specific population? Brainstorm some ideas of how you can honor them by doing something that would be meaningful to them.
See below for some specific ideas about how you can commemorate the important person in your life who died.
Be gentle with yourself
You have lost an important person in your life, and it is natural for the holiday season to look or feel different to you. Communicate to others what supports are best for you and your family. Many times, people want to show that they care and would be grateful if you let them know how they can help—whether it’s shoveling the driveway or including your children in an activity (even if it’s over zoom) and allowing you to have some quiet time alone.
There is no right or wrong way to navigate the holidays
Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way for you and your family to approach the holiday season. What works for one person might not work for another, and each family member may grieve in different ways. The more you are able to talk together about what is most helpful, the more there can be some understanding of what each person needs. Take the time, even if it feels hard, to think for yourself what you need and then share that with those closest to you. Listen to the children to see what they need and explore as a family how to be in this holiday season in a way that remembers the person who died and allow for self-care.