My older brother and sister-in-law were killed unexpectedly and tragically earlier this year. As one can imagine, the family has been devastated. They were an integral part of our family holidays—my sister-in-law, Lina, baking a cherry pie (just for me), and my brother, Larry, saying the family prayer at mealtimes. Those things aren’t happening this year.
The family is still fragile and grieving, yet we must go on. How do we have our holidays with this loss? How can we move forward and still honor their presence in our lives? Is just “getting through it” enough?
Some family members have talked of “canceling” the holidays this year and doing something different, something out-of-the-box. Would this help with healing? Would it provide a space to move forward without having to face the pain head-on?
Others have talked about keeping the traditions but changing them up—changing the time we get together, eat, play “reindeer games,” and where we gather. Might this help in easing the ache? Does having the holidays, but changing them, make them better?
Some want to keep everything the same. To them, changing the traditions somehow feels disloyal, like a betrayal to our deceased loved ones.
What is the answer?
The answer is there is no RIGHT way to get through this. Simply put, getting through the holidays will be hard, regardless of the “how.” The first everything after a loss is difficult. In the world of hospice care, that is why they follow a family for 13 months after a death, to support and help the family navigate each first without their loved one. The holiday season will bring up the grief and loss we all feel. It’s going to be filled with moments of pain, laughter, tears, nostalgia, and new experiences.
My advice to anyone in this situation is to be gentle and hold each other close in a space that allows the sadness to mingle with joy. Acknowledge and honor the feelings in the room. Understand that the loss each person experiences is unique, based on the type of relationship they had with the deceased (in my family, Larry and Lina were son, daughter, brother, sister, mom, dad, uncle, aunt, papa, and grandmommie). Communicate lovingly with one another about what you are experiencing and what support looks like to you. Finally, know that laughter and fun are not betrayal, nor do they in any way mean forgetting what happened.
Ultimately, my family decided to keep the holiday experience similar to the traditional celebration we shared before the tragedy. About 20 of us met at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. Our goal was to get through it, honor our loss, celebrate the holiday, and, hopefully, experience some healing as a family.
My nephew and his wife recently had a son. Even while we grieved, having the baby around was a reminder of the joy of new life and gave us a space to know we are sharing old traditions while creating new ones.
At one moment last week, I was eating my cherry pie with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face as I remembered Lina. I watched the Dallas Cowboys football game in honor of Larry. I held my family close, including my new great-nephew, and recognized that getting through this holiday season will be possible.
By Jimmy G. Owen, LCPC, CDWF