Finding Moments of Joy: Creating Meaningful Holiday Traditions
After experiencing the death of a loved one, facing holiday traditions can be one of the most difficult parts of the season. For some, continuing holiday traditions feels too painful because these familiar acts can serve as a reminder of all that’s been lost. For others, these activities that were once shared with a loved one now feel impossible without that person here.
“I tried to cook Thanksgiving dinner. And as I was setting the table and different things, it just broke my heart.”
“We are changing the location of our Christmas dinner this year. I don’t think I could celebrate it at the same place without Momma there.”
“It’s hard putting up stockings where it used to be three, and now it’s two.”
“My husband always decorated our tree. But I couldn’t put it up. I didn’t know how to put it together.”
Whether you want to skip certain traditions altogether this year, keep them going for the sake of others, or create new or modified traditions, all of these choices can be good, healthy options in grief. By taking certain steps, you can find ways to navigate holiday traditions in a way that is meaningful for you and your family.
Read on to learn more about steps you can take to approach traditions this season, as well as how to find a holiday-specific grief support group near you or online.
Think through your traditions beforehand
Facing holiday traditions after a loved one’s death is full of complexities, but thinking through your traditions in advance can help you feel better prepared for the season. Start by asking yourself these questions:
What are some Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions that involved my loved one?
What traditions am I dreading because they seem too painful or difficult to manage without my loved one?
What traditions do I want to maintain, and why?
What traditions are really important to my family?
If there is an overlap between the traditions you’re dreading and the ones important to your family, it’s vital to be honest with your family about what you’re feeling. Once your concerns are out in the open, you and your family can work together to ensure that everyone’s needs and feelings are taken into account this season. And remember, you can choose to handle a tradition one way this year, and then do it differently next year.
When talking to children in your family about how traditions might look different this year, grief author Lois Rabey, whose husband died, shares how she approached this topic with her young children. Before Thanksgiving and Christmas, she sat down with her kids and said, “We’re going to have some new traditions, and it will be okay. This will feel different. And there may be things you’re going to feel sad about. Come talk to me, and we’ll work through it with God’s help.”
Decide which traditions to maintain and which to stop
As you think through your traditions and talk to your family, it’s essential to consider what traditions you want to maintain and which ones no longer make sense or are too painful to keep going—even if this decision is only for this year.
Counselor Ron Deal, whose son died, explains how his family kept some traditions while stopping others: “We ‘sort of’ did Christmas the two years after Connor’s death. We gave gifts to the other two boys. But we didn’t even try to do the tree and ornaments. Those traditions were just too painful.”
Although certain traditions will feel too painful to continue, you might also find that maintaining other ones brings comfort. Paul, who lost his mom, shares a tradition that he maintains to feel connected to her memory: “I always make one of my mom's recipes, and it keeps the memories alive and sparks conversation [about her].”
No matter how your family decides to handle traditions this year, realizing that your decisions are subject to change—and that’s okay—is a significant part of the process. As Ron shares, “For the holidays, try something, and if it doesn’t work, you know what not to do next year. Each year, keep trying until you find what works for your family.”
Create new traditions
Traditions are a valuable way to make the holidays special for you and your family. For the traditions that feel too painful or meaningless to continue, another option is transforming these traditions to create something new.
Although Ron’s family felt that certain traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree, were too painful to continue, he shares that “Slowly over time, the traditions began to enter back into the picture in different ways, with new meanings that they didn’t have before.”
In your own life, you might find that a certain tradition you once shared with your loved one could look different and take on a new meaning. For example, if putting up a stocking for your loved one only reminds you of the person’s absence, you might consider Mel Erickson’s idea to transform this tradition into something that connects you to your loved one’s memory: “You might use a Christmas stocking as a place where people can put treasured holiday memories, and then have a time of sharing those memories.”
By transforming a familiar tradition into something new, you can create new meaning while honoring the memory and legacy of your loved one.
You don’t have to do this alone
Thinking through holiday traditions can be a painful process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Help is available at GriefShare Surviving the Holidays. This supportive event offers practical tools for navigating the complexities of this season in grief. You’ll hear wisdom from grief experts and personal testimonies from people who have learned to make it through the holidays, and you’ll also receive a Survival Guide that provides direction after the event is over.
Find a Surviving the Holidays 2-hour event meeting near you or online.