Remembering someone who has died at holiday time

A mourner is perforce, a person with a story. The pity is, how very rarely it gets told.” Christian McEwen

The first Thanksgiving after my mother died, I spent with my godmother Ginny and her family. I had known Ginny my whole life, of course, and her three daughters were like cousins to me. They were all there, one of them with her own three daughters! Growing up we had spent many holidays and birthdays together, so we were a lively crew, and everyone contributed part of the meal. I brought some of the traditional items from my childhood, creamed onions and an apple pie; my favorites because my mom always made them.

As the day and evening wore on, I mentioned my mom a few times, hoping someone would chime in and tell a story about her. “Remember when Betty…” or “Your mother was the best pie maker!” But no one followed my lead. No one bit.

By the end of the evening, I was exhausted and went up to my room and had a good cry. It was then I realized how badly I had wanted and needed to talk about my mom, especially this first holiday without her when she had been dead just a little over a month.

The next morning when I woke, I thought, ‘I’ll try again.’ Maybe they just didn’t know I needed to talk about her. After all, I hadn’t even realized that’s what I needed. But try as I might, I could not get anyone to chime in and I didn’t yet know how to ask them to do so.

I shared this story with a friend, and she said perhaps your godmother was grieving, too, and maybe she couldn’t talk about her. Ah! I had been so focused on my own loss it didn’t even occur to me that my godmother was missing her dear friend Betty, too.

But I also think people just don’t know it’s okay and even helpful and wonderful to share stories about the person who has died. The mourner needs to hear the stories as much as they need to tell their own stories.

What stories will you tell around the holiday table this year? Does it help to hear? To speak? Or is it too hard?

Here are some simple ideas you can do at a holiday time (or anytime) to remember a person who has died.

  • Make one of their favorite recipes
  • Light a candle in their memory
  • Play some of their favorite music
  • If you have children discuss together as a family what traditions to keep or what new traditions to make
  • Decorate a ceramic plate in memory of the person. Set a place at the table for the person who is missing and use the decorated plate. Or use it as a serving piece or a decoration on the mantle.
  • Have your children and teens make holiday cards for the person who died and store in a memory box.
  • But most of all share stories and memories and say their name out loud.
  • Donate to a charity in their memory or volunteer at their favorite charity

The following are recommendations collected by Rabbi Earl Grollman, an author and pioneer in the field of death and dying, for meaningful ways to remember someone who has died during the holidays.

“The power and comfort of personal rituals can be therapeutic gifts. Of course, each family must decide individually how best to commemorate their loss as they celebrate the holidays. The following are suggestions of how some bereaved people have mingled their tinsel with tears.” Rabbi Grollman

  • “We start with a moment of silence, or someone offers a toast or prayer whenever it seems appropriate.”
  • “Grandma loved flowers so we place a single rose on the festival table in her memory.”
  • “Ceremoniously putting a special ornament on the tree symbolizes Dad’s favorite hobby.”
  • “In memory of our child, we dedicate the ‘shammes, the ‘servant’ or ‘pilot light’ from whose flame the other Chanukah candles are lit.”
  • “We write special notes to my mother, put them in her Christmas stocking and then read them to one another during dinner.”
  • “During the meal, I ask, ‘What leaps into your mind when I mention Uncle Bill.’ We go around the table, starting with children to adults. It’s a memorable and spontaneous stream of stories that bring enjoyment, laughter, and pleasure.”
  • “The chair where my grandfather always sat is given to the youngest grandchild to designate the continuity of generations.”
  • “My brother always munched on jellybeans, so we have a few around and remember him and smile.”
  • “We look through photo albums and show home movies and recall those ‘good ole days’.”
  • “Our sixteen-year-old son wrote a poem that he reads in his sister’s memory.”
  • “We play his favorite recording: Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”

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