Some people may think that since Thanksgiving has passed, a survivor’s spirits should recover from the sadness of being without their loved one for the holiday. Realistically, this is not usually the case. Even though family and friends have returned to their homes and work, the survivor remains suspended in their loneliness. Recovery work generally calls for extensive support throughout the entire holiday season, as well as for quite sometime thereafter.
If you have recently lost a loved one, or know someone who has, here are a few holiday ideas that may be helpful for getting through the season. The most uncomfortable thing for friends and extended family to do is probably the most comforting thing they can do. It is to acknowledge the decedent’s absence. Whether you say the decedent’s name or not, the survivor is thinking of him or her; mentioning them acknowledges their importance and allows the survivor an opportunity to release his or her stress. If the survivor begins to cry, realize that crying is a stress reliever. Your actions did not cause the survivor’s sorrow, the tears were already there. Your thoughtfulness may have presented an opportunity to allow the survivor’s stress to manifest itself in an atmosphere of comfort, support, and love. Although their sadness and loneliness remain, releasing their stress allows them a better opportunity to engage in the present, and moves their recovery forward.
My second suggestion is closely related to the first. In acknowledging the physical absence of the decedent, one might prominently place a picture or meaningful object in honor of the decedent within the celebration area. Prior to marrying my sweetheart, I served a mission in the country of France. During the holiday season, the French observe a wonderful tradition of placing nativity figurines around their homes. Unlike the traditional American nativity, the French nativity includes likenesses of common people. Their nativities are constructed of the red clay harvested from the Southern Provence. They are called santones. Santones are placed all around the home and each day the children move them a little closer to the manger. By Christmas Eve, all of the santones are surrounding the manger. The next morning, Christmas morning, baby Jesus is placed in the manger. The moral of the tradition demonstrates that the people of the world must give up their natural characters and replace them through Christ’s grace. During my time in France, I noticed that certain families added small framed photographs or tokens of love representing their deceased loved ones to their nativity collections. By Christmas morning, their loved ones were gathered with the rest of the santones, at the manger of their infant Savior, to rejoice in his birth and grace. It was a lovely tradition that brought great comfort and hope to the survivors, and took much the discomfort surrounding death and separation out of the season.
My third suggestion is to acknowledge and observe family traditions even if the driving force behind the tradition was the decedent. On Monday of last week, I received a visit from a client who had just lost his wife a few weeks prior. He came to discuss a tradition that had been observed in his family since the beginning of his marriage. His loving wife had traditionally cooked sweet rolls for her children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving breakfast. He said that his grandchildren had come to him expressing a lack of enthusiasm for Thanksgiving and that they had proposed just skipping it this year. He wanted my thoughts on the matter.
I told him that experiencing the holidays after the death of a loved one is like falling off of a horse. You have to get right back up, dust yourself off, and climb back on. If his family skipped Thanksgiving, Christmas would slap them next. I suspected his wife also traditionally cooked sweet rolls for Christmas breakfast, I was right. Skipping the holidays would be an invitation for continued denial and complicated grief. If his family followed through with their suggestion, I felt confident that following years of holiday cheer would suffer until eventually there may be no cheer at all. As his wife had been a dear friend of mine, I felt strongly that she would not want such a difficult situation manifesting itself for her family. By the time he left my home, he was confident in my opinion. Together we preserved his wife’s tradition of a holiday sweet roll breakfast and quite possibly thwarted a potentially complicated recovery scenario for his children and grandchildren. Continuing to observe family traditions is important and helps to strengthen, rather than weaken, family bonds.
My fourth suggestion is to develop new traditions in honor of the decedent. My daughter has a friend that lost an infant sibling when she was a child. Her friend’s family began a tradition that although it brings tears to my heart, has served to mend the tears within their own. At the beginning of the holiday season, when everyone is out shopping and putting up trees, this family lovingly places a small pair of their deceased infant’s shoes outside of his closed bedroom door. It is a tradition centered around tiny shoes that represent a tiny child, but its healing impact has been enormous. His tiny shoes reserve a space in the home, holiday, and hearts of those who loved him. They allow his family to take a moment and reflect upon their love for him and offer assurances that he was, and remains, a part of their lives and family. In return, his tiny shoes reflect back to his family the love their Savior has for them, and offer confidence that he resides in His presence. It allows them to celebrate the most significant birth ever known to mankind and quietly shares peace on earth within the hollowness of their hearts.
Holidays are always days that cause pause within the hearts of survivors. As such, it is incumbent upon us to resolve our lives and restructure them in such a way that allows us to exist without the physical presence of our loved ones beside us. Acknowledging the loss, pain, and loneliness is the first step toward recovery. Traditions and holidays help us move the pain and loneliness we suffer into a more manageable scenario of cherished memories.
Throughout this holiday season, if you chance upon a suffering survivor, please remember my holiday suggestions. Although you may feel awkward at first, eventually you will see great rewards from incorporating them into your holiday traditions and celebrations.
My name is Tracy Renee Lee. I am the owner and Managing Funeral Director at Queen City Funeral Home in Queen City Texas. I am an author, syndicated columnist, and certified grief counselor. I write books and weekly bereavement articles related to understanding and coping with grief. I am the American Funeral Director of the Year Runner-Up and recipient of the BBB’s Integrity Award. I deliver powerful messages and motivate audiences toward positive recovery. It is my life’s work to comfort the bereaved and help them live on.
For additional encouragement, read other articles or watch video “Grief Briefs,” please go to my website at www.MourningCoffee.com.