Remembering a recently lost loved one during the holidays
December 18, 2011 12:03 PM   Subscribe

My brother died 7 months ago in an unexpected and tragic accident. This will be our first Christmas without him. What are some ideas for new traditions we can start to actively remember him and honor his memory?

We're doing a few things differently this year to help make the holidays a bit easier (tree in a different spot of the house, different Christmas Eve celebration location, etc). On Christmas day we usually hang around the house, fiddle with gifts, and spend time together. I foresee this being really difficult, and for the individuals in our family to grieve internally and not want to ruin the "mood" by talking outright about what we're all feeling inside. I'm wondering if people have either heard of, or developed their own rituals or traditions during the holidays to incorporate the memory of a loved one into these yearly 'celebrations.'
posted by isaypotato to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What about making a special ornament that represents him (a symbol of something he liked, or a picture) and hang it on your tree? It's a small thing to do, but over the years it could help promote family talks about your brother and bring good memories.
posted by Danithegirl at 12:14 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

A photo frame ornament with a picture of him in it, which you could change out every year to a different picture, would be a beautiful way to bring his memory into your Christmas.

My condolences on your loss. Hang in there.
posted by juniperesque at 12:14 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

you could make a stocking for him, and each of you could maybe make a card where you write one of your favorite memories of him, put the cards in the stocking, and then share those cards with each other during a 'special time' you devote to his stocking and to his memory...or maybe don't do it together if it's too emotional now, but each of you will know the stocking is there and you can go read the cards if you want for a moment by yourself to connect with his memory in a special way.

my condolences on your loss
posted by saraindc at 12:22 PM on December 18, 2011 [13 favorites]

Watch one of his favorite movies every year? Or work on one of his favorite hobbies, or visit one of his favorite places. During this time, you can see the world through his eyes and feel closer to him. I'm glad you asked this question.
posted by mochapickle at 12:24 PM on December 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Put his Christmas stocking in its place and fill it with gifts and toys and stuff to be donated. If he was a big fan of, say, jigsaw puzzles, you know what to fill the stocking with.
posted by Heretical at 12:28 PM on December 18, 2011 [20 favorites]

I have snowflake-shaped photo frame ornament with a picture of my late fiancé in it, and I gave one to his mother and two sisters. We all hang our ornaments on our trees each year. It's a way of remembering him fondly at Christmas (his birthday was Dec 25 too).
posted by essexjan at 12:38 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss, isaypotato. This will be our fourth Christmas since my sister died, and it's a tough time of year. I don't have any suggestions for rituals -- we don't have any at my house -- but I think your instincts about a) making Christmas feel slightly different by moving things around and b) wanting to make it easier to talk about him are good ones. In terms of talking about him, it might be as simple as leading by example, letting people know that it's okay to talk about him by bringing him up when it feels natural. ("Remember when he did that funny thing?") My thoughts are with you -- hope the holidays go as well as possible for you.
posted by cider at 1:00 PM on December 18, 2011

My aunt always has a dove on her Christmas cards to symbolize her deceased daughter. Her daughter died over 30 years ago, but my aunt still picks a holiday card that includes her dove. The thing is many people who receive the cards probably don't know why that dove is there, but my aunt absolutely does.

You can change things, but it really doesn't matter that you move the tree is or that you go somewhere new on Christmas Eve. You'll be grieving for the unexpected loss no matter where the tree is. Pick something that your brother loved about the holiday and do it - Christmas brunch, egg nog, a family puzzle. What did you know your brother looked forward to about the day? Do that.

My condolences on your loss.
posted by 26.2 at 1:01 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wonder if you could ease up on yourselves trying to start a tradition *this* year, as it's the first year. Just do whatever makes you feel better. Maybe go out to a meal or movie rather than fiddling around with gifts? Play a board game or something structured that has you being together?

Maybe a tradition will reveal itself this year and you can carry that forward. I don't want to discourage the idea of a tradition as it's lovely, but maybe this year you could just try not to set any expectations.
posted by sweetkid at 1:09 PM on December 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

A toast?
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:17 PM on December 18, 2011

First of all, my condolences for your loss.

We have Christmas dinner every year at my in-laws', with members of their family coming over from far and wide. We all have our unofficial places at the table. Last Christmas, a few months after a member of the family passed away, we set a place at the table for that person - complete with plate, fork and knife, etc.

This might be the complete opposite of what you feel would be right for your family - I'm sure whatever you decide will be fitting.
posted by bitteroldman at 1:19 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

My grandmother (who outlived her husband by about a decade) always made a food my grandfather loved for Christmas/New Years. She also continued celebrating all his Jewish stuff (challah bread, Hanukkah, etc.) for us grandkids, even though she was Catholic - did your brother have a favorite Christmas movie to watch or something? And she lit a 24 hour candle every year on his death date, which is extremely traditional, and on Christmas, his birthday, Easter, and most other holidays, which was her own thing.
posted by SMPA at 1:42 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got a double whammy this year as not only is this the first Christmas without my mom, but she actually died last Christmas, so I have a good idea of what you are feeling. We are changing the location of Christmas dinner and making some new dishes rather than trying to duplicate exactly what she would have made, but honestly, it's going to suck no matter what we do.

I think we honor her by remembering her, missing her, and by celebrating the holiday even though it feels awful. She wouldn't want us to give up Christmas because of her. At Thanksgiving, a toast to acknowledge her absence left us in tears. But telling funny stories about her added some levity. I think we'll do that again but with a Christmas focus.
posted by cecic at 1:53 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know a family who's son committed suicide in a completely impulsive act as a teenager. His birthday was close to Christmas, so they never started decorating until after his birthday and this is still their tradition.
I agree with sweetkid in that you just let it happen without pressure and expectations, and I was also going to suggest going to see a movie or doing something different, a show, a game, an activity. That could itself become a tradition. Movies are kind of great for getting people together to share an experience without having to speak or act or even distract from their own thoughts.
Or you could just let people talk and grieve and not worry about "mood" unless there is some reason, like someone is especially coping badly or everyone is exhausted by grief and needs a break. It's unavoidable when you are together as a family, especially if this is not usual or common.
As for rituals, you can do lots of things and it depends on what he and your family find significant or symbolic.
I find fire works well. If you have a fireplace, a bowl you can burn things in, a bonfire or want to get something special (there are all kinds of indoor fire vessels), you can write messages on paper, share them or keep them private, and burn them to disperse them into the universe/send him a message/let them go. It can be emotions, memories, resentments, wishes-- anything.
Also, you can light a candle, fire, etc. and tend to it to keep it burning, or get one of those Jewish candles that are for this purpose. Being around a flame is another thing that lets people be together and yet have their own thoughts.
I am a legal reverend and spiritual counselor and often help people come up with alternative, individual and creative ways of dealing, coping and grieving, specific to their needs, so if you want help figuring out something to do, feel free to ask me, but maybe just ask everyone else and see what they say. Did he have a favorite movie, hobby, book, song, food? Is there something they associate only with him? Is religion important or are you okay with using rituals from other cultures?
But what do you guys need right now, catharsis or a break from the grief?
posted by provoliminal at 2:18 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

It might also be valuable while you're together to do something to help his memory live on beyond your immediate family. You could go give blood together, or sign up for your state's organ donor program, or arrange to plant a tree... or even just bring something together (cookies, a poinsettia, a donation, whatever feels appropriate) to the EMT squad that responded to his accident.

I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by argonauta at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2011

One idea is to begin an annual Yankee swap. Everybody brings a gift to contribute to the pile, then you play/distribute according to whatever rules seem right to you. There are myriad versions. Some versions incorporate an "extra" present—and this could be the asterisk for your family's version: The extra present could be chosen to represent your brother somehow, maybe something representative of his life or something he might have liked. Every year you could rotate through which family member is responsible for selecting and bringing this extra present.

Yankee swaps are fun and don't have to be a big deal. My family's limit is $25. For the kids we still do regular presents, but the adults participate in the swap in lieu of exchanging individual presents. It saves everybody money.

I'm sorry for your loss. The first Christmas always feels different. I hope your family does have a merry Christmas.
posted by cribcage at 2:44 PM on December 18, 2011

I lost my brother unexpectedly a few years ago, but every year since then I've baked a cake on his birthday and served it out to friends and family, some who knew him, but many who didn't and have no idea why I'm bringing them cake. Nothing you do will really change the pain, and it doesn't really matter what you do, just that you set some time aside for you to remember your brother. It doesn't have to be something ostentatious or grand; anything you do to remember him will have meaning.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:47 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

And I owe you a hug.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:48 PM on December 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your incredibly kind and thoughtful responses. They are all good ideas, and I plan to suggest some to my family and hear their thoughts.

In response to provoliminal- I think what we need is catharsis. As a family we have a tendency to stow our emotions internally unless put in a situation structured for expression of grief (like the times we have met with a counselor). I just wanted to think of a situation that would give people an opportunity to reminisce and actively nurture our memories. I don't mean to over-structure anything, but was hoping to have a few ideas to take back to my family.

...and Panjandrum- *hug back*
posted by isaypotato at 3:26 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about the family contributing to a worthy cause (local or specific to his interests) that offers an opportunity to "buy a brick" with his name on it? I like the idea of creating little but lasting testimonies to his life in various places that extended family may someday visit. Here's Habitat for Humanity, but all sorts of museums/causes do this.

Let the family member who seems to be having the hardest time with their grief take the lead, though, and try and actively cut them a break if their sorrow makes them unable to deal or makes them respond to the holidays in a way that seems inappropriate.
posted by Morrigan at 3:38 PM on December 18, 2011

Did your brother have a favorite charity or cause? You might start a scholarship or charity fund. Every year family and friends can donate and this would be a lasting legacy.
posted by valannc at 3:42 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess you probably aren't religious, or aren't members of a religion that do this, but in Catholic and High Church protestant circles it is common to light candles for the dead at mass. Most cathedrals and other large churches have a supply of candles near an alter at all times for visitors even between services to light and leave in memory of their loved ones (or with thoughts/prayers for those still living).

I believe some eastern religions have similar ways of leaving tokens at shrines (in Shinto shrines, for example, I think you can buy little wooden boards to inscribe a prayer onto and hang up and leave there). If you aren't averse to religious ritual, you might consider a family visit on Christmas Eve or Christmas day to the religious place of your choice to light a candle or leave a token in memory of your brother. It doesn't have to be part of a service if you don't usually attend mass.

(I like to light a candle for my grandma when I visit a church, even though I'm not at all a believer any more.)
posted by lollusc at 4:12 PM on December 18, 2011

If you don't mind being the facilitator: talk. Start the talking. Sometimes people are just waiting for someone else to start things, it's much easier to follow someone else's lead. "Remember when--"
Other Christmases, funny stories, times you were together. How did Thanksgiving go?
If this is too awkward, out of character, or will not get the ball rolling, maybe getting an actual exercise is best, like getting everyone to write down a remembrance or story about him and then reading them or having one person read them. You could burn them or you can save them.
It could be weird, but maybe something unusual or different here is a good thing, but what about an altar space? A picture, things he liked, owned, would appreciate. Shots of liquor. If alcohol isn't a problem, a drink in his honor is pretty classic and may help people disinhibit.
There are tons of rituals.
posted by provoliminal at 4:19 PM on December 18, 2011

Also very popular nowadays: a memorial website. Did he have a Facebook account? Was he part of any communities or active anywhere?
As a Facebook resister, I can't speak to that, but a site where you can collect pictures, web presence links, keep adding things, and that lets other people contribute can help in a number of ways. He's gone but he's still a member of the family and won't be forgotten, this is just a tangible reminder and an outlet.
Using any number of free services, you could have something started by Christmas if you have the time. Some people will write things they would never say.
posted by provoliminal at 4:36 PM on December 18, 2011

You are wise to change things around: This means you have an eye toward the future. To balance that, you now need to create a ritual that respectfully leaves room for the past, but doesn't overwhelm you with it. Together, the two sensibilities—welcoming the future and honoring the past—create a balance: And that balance is the present. Note, however, that not all of your family members will be equally comfortable there. Many of you may be in different stages of mourning. Even if not, even in the unlikely event that you're all at roughly the same stage, you inevitably have not only have different personality styles but, as a logical extension, markedly different mourning styles. And some styles may well aggravate others. This is something that can not, and within reasonable limits, should not be controlled. Instead difference should be respected by creating a ritual that is flexible enough to accommodate as many of you as it can fit.

The most effective rituals involve soothing, meditative activities that are roughly scheduled for a commonly understood duration; when the ritual has been completed new activities rise to the fore and this changes the tone without too much active effort. Whether people actively discuss the subject or not is, of course, what will affect tone most. Some may be too distraught to talk, while others may chatter endlessly. A clear beginning and a clear end helps people adjust to participating or ceasing to participate. They also help people wait out other "styles" if they find them taxing.

Symbolism will is another thing that will help people tolerate their own feelings and those of others. Candles, trees, and flowering trees, especially: Things that call up images of time, of strength, of seasonal change, of lifespans, the stuff of poetry, really, inevitably play an important role in any ritual. This is because ritual themselves are nothing but symbols. And how couldn't they be? How else are we to understand a thing like death?

One common practice is allowing everyone to light a candle en memoriam. The act is shadowy, solemn, and also neutral enough to appeal to a variety of mourners. When the last candle is lit, the event is over. Writing things down is more overtly valuable for both readers and writers. If neither could possibly work, or if neither seems like quite enough, I would emphatically recommend tree-planting.

Planting a tree gives mourners something new to tend to, build around, and visit, while a candle is, by definition, temporary—at most extinguishing itself within the day. Symbolically speaking, both candles and trees encompass basic truths about life and death. By doing so, they stimulate memories, while also providing a concrete focal point and no obvious association, barring those cases where the location was particularly frequented by the person who died. Trees are sometimes barren, sometimes lovely, but always cumulatively complex enough as living entities to help withstand the multitude of feelings mourners throw their way. They can help fill some of the void, by providing a permanent somewhere to go, a permanent something to check, something maybe not as sad as photo albums of happier times, or as haunting as cemeteries full of strangers in a strange land.

When friends of mine lost a child in a horrible way, a friend and I sent them a flowering magnolia en memoriam. What we'd expected to be a one-time planting event turned into a full-blown therapeutic activity. Over several seasons, rocks, shrubs, paving stones, and flowering vines were added. So was a bench. Now the family has a gorgeous quiet, semi-enclosed outdoor space where they can go and reflect on the lost family member if they feel the need, or where they can weed, rake, or trim if they want to feel closer in spirit, but feel a need to do anything but reflect.

Whatever happens, try not to dread the markers of passing time. Different cultures mourn in different ways: some wail, some rejoice (Hallelujah!), and some withhold. All have merits and all have drawbacks. In the States, your individual or collective mourning style will depend on so many different things, your family traditions, psychological openness, religious or secular background, ages, occupations, sense of self, myriad intangibles. You can not control how other people mourn, or whether they make things worse or not. But you can help provide the space to steer their mourning.

So aim for the meditative. Let each stumble through as they best know how. This will feel respectful, but not be controversial. Spend an hour or so "trying out" a new ritual, and if you find it inadequate, adjust it at some time later in the future. Everything grows and changes, including rituals. When the one you have devised is complete, mark its closure for now by doing something you've never done before. Or if the ritual is enough change in and of itself, then proceed with your usual events. Mark out your holiday plans in a rough outline form, include a logical sequence, but be sure to keep them elastic enough so none of you suffer more than you already have.

My heartfelt best wishes.
posted by Violet Blue at 4:54 PM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

A friend/former professor whose child died of cancer now light an extra candle during Hanukkah in memory of their daughter. They sort of go on and off lighting it all the time depending on what hey feel like they need, but they always light it during Hanukkah.
posted by naturalog at 6:05 PM on December 18, 2011

The first Christmas after my father-in-law passed away, we served Christmas dinner at the hospice where he died and had a small memorial service in the hospice's chapel. I think it helped a lot of folks and it was nice to create a good memory of a place that was filled with some very bad ones.
posted by elizeh at 8:41 PM on December 18, 2011

A simple prayer might be nice. You can hold hands either at the dinner table or in the center of the room and (in turn) wish your loved one a Merry Christmas. There is a wonderful strength gained in holding everyone's hands. Maybe you can lead the prayer. Something straight from the heart, for example: "Father, in Heaven, we ask that you look down on our family and guide us, we miss (name) so much" My heartfelt condolences to you. I lost my brother too, and I miss him every day.
posted by naplesyellow at 10:07 PM on December 18, 2011

My brother passed in early June of 2006. The first Christmas was hard... at the time I had the good fortune of being married... and still very much in love. It was her idea to make the first ornament... it was simple and elegant... eighteen months later everything was so much different. Now I run from the world and drink. I do not recommend the course the that I have taken... it's a lonely one.

But always fight hard to rmember the good times that you and your brother shared. Try not to let the world rip them from you...

It is much easier said, than done.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 11:37 PM on December 26, 2011

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