The holidays: perfect storm for those who grieve

By Steven Kalas


[Y]ou first feel the breeze of it a few days before Halloween. Like that subtle sense that the barometer is dropping. Like a tide is ever so slightly beginning to turn. Something changes in the air. Excitement dances with dread.

The momentum is exponential. Inexorable. Faster and faster, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Planning. Shopping. Cooking. The post office. Parties, and then some more parties. More shopping. More cooking. Oh, and drinking. Time to drink some more!

It begins as a trickle and ends in a perfect storm: The Holidays.

Human beings invest huge chunks of meaning in the rhythm of late November and December — the days of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Entire family histories are defined chiefly by holiday memories, for better or for worse.

Which is why about this time of year I always find myself thinking of grieving families — families looking down the barrel of the first Thanksgiving and first Christmas season without gramma or grandpa, without a son or a daughter, without a wife or a husband, without mom or dad.

You see them everyday/ They wear the bravest face/ They’ve lost someone they love/ They are the grieving ones

For most us, The Holidays promise warmth and joy, if some harried stress. For grieving families, the First Holidays threaten great darkness. Those families often ask, “How do we get through the holidays?”

So here’s an early holiday gift to bereaved families facing the First Holidays. A quick primer of ideas in service to hope and healing.

Predict Sadness

The surest way to make things feel awkward and dark and difficult is to try to make them feel normal. To “put on a cheery face.” To make sure everything stays the same. See, nothing is normal. Someone you love is dead. They aren’t there. Nothing is the same.

Expect tears to flow in the midst of smiles and grandkids and gravy and gifts. Don’t be surprised when conversations lull or silence lapses. Don’t resist these moments; rather, cherish them.

Take a few moments for yourself. Step out on the back porch or into the backyard. Include a trip to the cemetery or crèche, alone or with family members. Light a candle in a house of worship, or otherwise participate in a religious observation.

Say the name of your deceased loved one out loud.

Symbolic Transfer

Was there a particular niche the decease occupied in the family? Especially around the holidays? If grandpa was known for making his famous stuffing recipe, then gramma might consider giving that recipe to the oldest son, or to a favorite grandchild. Make a dramatic presentation out of it: Would he/she now do the family the honor of preparing and bringing this dish?

Perhaps a dead brother became an Eagle Scout. Mom, Dad — why not wrap that Eagle badge as a gift to the surviving brother? Did grandpa put himself through college as a pool shark? Pass the cue stick into someone’s care.

Symbolic absence

I know a family who set a place at the Thanksgiving table for the deceased husband/father. On the back of the chair they hung the man’s raggedy fishin’ hat. Another family laid a high school letter sweater across a chair around the Christmas tree. Still another family cleared a living room tea table and created a sort of shrine to a deceased child: a photo montage, Hot Wheel car, superhero action figures, etc.

You’ll be surprised how not depressing this is. Sobering, moving, powerful, comforting — but not depressing.

Symbolic Upending

The First Holidays are a good time to introduce new traditions and practices. Instead of turkey, serve prime rib for Christmas dinner. Open gifts Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Or you can get really radical, like the bereaved family I know who vacated for Christmas and all went skiing in Utah. Opened their presents around a fireplace in a ski lodge.

The point is that death leaves nothing the same. Some families find a kind of peace in holiday observations that reflect this radical change (rather than trying to pretend nothing has changed).

Yes, entire family histories are shaped by memories of the holidays. And great family histories include the history of death. This pain, this ache — it’s forming you. Shaping you. Changing you. And, if you’re willing to endure, this grief will make you more.

Grief is a noble art/ Each tear will stretch your heart/ There’s more room now for love/ God bless the grieving ones

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