How to cope with holidays and changing family dynamics (loss)?
December 19, 2017 8:34 PM   Subscribe

My grandma, a core part of the family and someone I was very close with, passed away. I'm visiting my family for Christmas and everything seems to have changed. It's threw me a loop.

In March, my grandma, someone everyone in the family (immediate and extended) admired and looked up to, and someone I was very close with, passed away from cancer. We, as a family, held a memorial service and a balloon send-off for her to remember and honor her. This was during the summer, when everyone could get together.

Recently, I came home to visit my parents and siblings for Christmas. As I have done so in past years, I came here with plans for two weeks to be spent with the family, and friends if possible. I live 3,000 miles across the country from my family; my two siblings live up to 60 miles from my parents, so they're close in proximity (my brother lives right next door in my grandma's former "cottage", renting out with his girlfriend; my sister lives about an hour drive away with her boyfriend). Our traditions over the past years, that has remained consistent, has been having everyone in the house at the same time, playing cards, hanging out, and for Christmas Eve/Christmas morning, driving around and seeing Christmas lights, telling Christmas stories, waking up and opening presents together, etc. Despite the fact that I'm 31 and my siblings are in their early/mid 20s, this has happened every year with "guaranteed" certainty. My grandma also took part in all/most of those traditions, depending on how she felt physically, alluding to the fact that she lived right next door in her "cottage".

This time around, however, has been really different and very odd. My sister works a lot, so she has spent a majority of her time in the town she lives in, rarely being here at home. My brother, despite living right next door, has been working all day too, but after work, stays inside his house and does his own thing with his girlfriend. And, I recently discovered that he may spend Christmas morning with his girlfriend's family three hours away. All those has really thrown me a loop, and it feels really weird being here only with my parents - I know, better than nothing, but it just feels very weird.

I completely understand people get older, I really do, and I get it. However, this is very difficult for me, given all the broken traditions, the now almost-empty house, compounded by my grandma's passing away. I'm the only deaf one in the family, and the only single one among my siblings. I have tried getting together with the few friends I still have in the area, but it has not really succeeded due to conflicting schedules. I do not have a car nor can drive my parents' vehicles, adding to the hardship. I feel like I have invested my time and money to come out and see my family and spend time with them, but it seems like it has been nothing substantial so far, and this is very disappointing and hard for me to cope with. My mom also has said she does not want to impose on my brother, by asking that he come over and spend time with us. I understand that, as he has his own time and his own life, but a small part of me is thinking that maybe he should come over more, as this is the holidays, and I am not home often enough. Am I being selfish in thinking this way? He planned to come over tonight, but his girlfriend got sick with the flu, oy.

I'm used to my siblings being around for most of the time, the house alive with them talking and spending time together, and my grandma being right next door... all in one place. Now, it's just an empty weird "ghost-like" place, with just me and my parents, and my brother/his girlfriend locked away next door. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy their company so much, but it just feels really weird and empty. It's hard to explain. That, and my grandma is now gone, and my friends are all far-flung... it really sucks.

Any suggestions on how to cope would be really much appreciated. Too many changes in a short time to take in. Thanks, and a very happy holidays to everyone here.
posted by dubious_dude to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm around your age. The Christmas after my grandmother died was really terrible, and in ways that would never have occurred to me--partly because I missed her, but partly because everything and everyone else was still out of sorts and it led to some unfortunate behavior. Through dumb luck, some of the things I did to try and escape/cope with the crappiness led me to some new and delightful traditions.

I'm not sure I have any great suggestions for you--I think that being aware this is a crappy time and making the effort to spend time with your family are all good signs that your coping mechanisms are already in decent working order, if understandably maybe a little maxed out right now.

It sounds like this is a time of year that's particularly meaningful for you, so I hesitate to say "get comfortable with the possibility that this might be a B/B- Christmas, better luck next year." It must be frustrating to not be able to spend time with your brother or have your mom push harder for the Christmas morning of being together you're hoping for. But the instinct to try and find ways to enjoy the situation you've got sounds like a good one, with the context of giving yourself permission to have kind of a rough holiday if that's how it feels to you, with whatever bright spots you can make of it.

And, I'm sorry for your loss. Your grandma sounds like a really special person, I bet she'd be proud of you. (Mine would also tell me not to worry about this stuff so much, but I would not manage to listen.)
posted by jameaterblues at 9:19 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

And since I mentioned "things I did to cope" but didn't actually specify: in my case, I needed to get out of the house for a few hours, so I found a volunteer event on Christmas Eve with my dad, and we loved it; we went back every year as long as they held it. The past few years we've gone to see Star Wars on Christmas, which also gives everybody a little bit of a break, as well as something to look forward to.
posted by jameaterblues at 9:27 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think you should say something to your brother. I don't think you're being selfish. This is one of your few chances to see him all year. Your sister may genuinely not have a choice about how much time she spends with you, but he does. (Although "girlfriend has the flu" is unfortunately a legitimate reason to stay home for the next day or two.)

Condolences on your loss.
posted by praemunire at 9:39 PM on December 19, 2017

Another reason to say something to your brother is that you are both turning into adult that get to have your own relationship, without your mother having to be center of things. I would make the request lightly but with a focus on wanting to spend time with him because you value his company.
posted by metahawk at 9:42 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am so sorry. I grew up having fabulous holidays with grandparents in a city some hours' drive away. When they died, that flavour of Christmas did as well, compounding the sense of loss. Worse, I was, while not a child, too self-absorbed to truly grok that I was not the only one grieving in the immediate years afterwards, and was not the most pleasant Xmas guest. I wish I had, like your brother, simply absented myself from most of it...

I would reach out to your brother, but not on a 'hey, remember me? Sure doesn't seem like it!' level. He may be coping with his grief by avoiding the holidays as much as he can, given all the memories involved. Your mother is also dealing with the horrible shock and loss of being bumped up a generation to the oldest one -- you can be quite advanced age-wise and still feel like an orphan; I am terrified of my parents' eventual demise, no matter how old I might be, I know the burden of being the oldest (worse, I am by many years the oldest of my generation) will be a lot of water to carry, with nobody to look "up" to for support. That my parents are relatively young and both in good health is something I am very grateful for and I hope I don't crash too hard... So she might be reluctant to involve herself, and might also be trying to cope by withdrawing from the holiday a bit.

The first Christmas, or other holiday that had a lot to do with a person, after a significant relative like your Grandma dies, is kind of sad and awful for all concerned, and I would probably not expect a Christmas that feels even a bit "normal" this year. It takes a while for families to re-group, sort out the new traditions, and raise a glass to the departed with good memories and cheer, instead of wistfully staring out windows, in my experience. I would definitely not take it personally.

In reaching out, depending on how open your family is about death, I might avoid any mention of doing things as they used to be done, and simply reaching out -- 'hey little bro, I've been thinking about Grandma a lot, and just wanted to touch base and wish you and yours well and say that I hope you're doing okay. This first Christmas without her is really hard on all of us, I know. Just wanted to check in. Would love to see you whenever you're up for it. Love, d_d.'

It is sad to say, but 2018 might just be more mourning for everyone instead of getting together. Given how much of the holiday hinged on your grandmother, who sounds like she must have been a very lovely lady, there's not much the family can do, it seems, that won't trigger a lot of painful memories. People like your brother may have thought that they had dealt with their grief for the most part, but the first holiday after losing someone who was central to that holiday is very, very hard. It would be nice if everyone came together even more than usual for mutual support, but everyone handles grief differently, and avoidance can be a pretty big part of it for many.

Perhaps you can contextualise it as the year of mourning your grandmother instead of the year of Xmas cheer. New traditions do eventually surface and life goes on, but my knee-jerk here is that your family may be busier mourning than they are with wanting to do the "guaranteed" things that will invariably remind them of the person missing from the table.

You might distract yourself, if it is not too difficult, by making a small, Xmas-themed scrapbook with photos and stories of your grandmother, something that can be brought out and enjoyed in the future when the mourning period is over and people are ready to celebrate her life rather than trying to bury their misery over her passing? Write down stories she told, and, when others are feeling better, ask them, in a low-key way, to contribute if they are in a state to do so. Caveat: it has been a decade since my very beloved grandmother died and only in recent years would I have been able to contribute more than a few lines and a couple of meaningful photos without losing it, and Xmas would be a bad time to ask.
posted by kmennie at 10:39 PM on December 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Say something to your brother! Doesn't have to be guilt-trippy, maybe just something like "hey, I want to make sure we get to spend some really good time together while I'm here. I'm really missing grandma, etc." Maybe wait a day or two if his GF is sick, but don't feel bad about expressing this to him.

You might also need to take a bit more of the lead in making sure the Christmas festivities happen. Every family has a guardian or two of traditions, maybe now that you're getting older, that should be you.
posted by lunasol at 10:41 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

You would be completely justified in saying something to your brother, and think you should. On a broader point though, it's probably unlikely your ideal Christmas was going to last as people got older and their lives and commitments changed, regardless of your Grandma's passing. I come from a family that used to have huge family Christmases, which have dwindled away slowly over the years, culminating (at least personally) with my Mum passing away at age 56, three years ago, which continues to be a massive loss in all of our lives, especially over Christmas. As a family we've certainly struggled with the same issue, but part of it feels like something that was always going to happen anyway to some extent. Don't be afraid to say something directly if you think people are being unreasonable (as it sounds like your brother is), but also just bear in mind that life changes as well.
posted by ryanbryan at 11:04 PM on December 19, 2017

I feel compelled to share my experience of this, but I'm hoping it does not apply to you...

When my father's mother passed, she was the "Miss Ellie" from Dallas of our clan - she was the glue that held us together and everyone was always on their best behavior around her because she was so so lovely.

When she passed, in a few short years, all of that good will and togetherness fell apart and we scattered. This was a HUGE blow to me in my 20's. Now in my late 40's with my own separate family... I bring my Grandmother's magic of togetherness into our community. My 6 yr old's best friend's family is currently having a tough time, and we are there for them. Just like my Gramma would've done.

I totally get what you are going through, but the truth is everyone around you is dealing with your Grandmother's loss in their own way. For some, it might be easier to splinter off. Try to understand and be kind. They are not as strong as you are. Carry your Grandmother's practices on where you can.

Hope that helps.
posted by jbenben at 11:14 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, not just your brother but also your sister. If you live far away it would not be unreasonable to ask both of them to spend a bit of time with you, with or without the parents and with or without their partners. Not in a ‚it’s Xmas and we have to spend time together but in a it‘s been a long time and I miss you‘ kind of way.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:17 PM on December 19, 2017

My mom also has said she does not want to impose on my brother, by asking that he come over and spend time with us

I don't understand if there's something keeping you from inviting your brother to spend time with you yourself? Why must you depend on your mom to invite your brother?

If the issue is that you don't have the permission of the hosts (your parents) to invite him to where you are staying, invite him for coffee or a meal -- or even a walk.

People do tend to splinter off as older relatives die off, if no one else takes the initiative in making plans. You will need to be proactive about reaching out to others, not just expect it to happen without your active input.

Sometimes it feels like others don't want to get together, but lack of desire to do the emotional labor of making plans doesn't mean people wouldn't want to gather if you do the planning.
posted by yohko at 12:09 AM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is one of the crappy things about the holidays - the traditions and rituals that gave us comfort and joy can’t be sustained indefinitely. The first Christmas after my dad died was especially rough, and I can’t go back to how it was. Adding partners to the mix further muddles things: there’s also the partners’ families to consider, and it’s hard to make traditions and schedules fit. Plus there’s the uncomfortable realization that the holiday might be more important to you than it is to another family member, and one person’s happy celebration might be another’s inconvenient annoyance.

Christmas changes as our families do, and you are allowed to grieve the old Christmas. It’s especially shitty to feel sad in the absence of something that used to always be there to make you happy, and to know it can’t go back the way it was. There’s no shortcut and no easy fix; we just have to make the best of it. I’m sorry. It sucks. It gets better, gradually and imperfectly.

Another uncomfortable realization is that a lot of these memories were cultivated through a lot of planning and effort and (sometimes forced) enthusiasm on the parents’ or grandparents’ part, and we’ve come to see them as “holiday magic” or shared, infectious cheer that’s inherent to the season. Christmas is a lot of work, and when you’ve grown up basking in the result, it gets really hard to switch your mindset. This is what I think of as “Kid Christmas” and “Adult Christmas” - the difference is who does the work. If you have a dedicated family, you can experience Kid Christmas to some degree well into adulthood. You’ve been abruptly switched to Adult Christmas, and as a result you’ve got to pick up the reins. Invite your siblings to do things; don’t expect them to automatically be enthused because of the holiday. If you can’t carry on the old rituals, start your own new ones.

It’s hard and it might have to just be hard for a while and I’m sorry. Be gentle with yourself and don’t take it personally if your family doesn’t come together; things are now different and they’re adjusting in their own ways.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:34 AM on December 20, 2017 [22 favorites]

I'd encourage you to talk with your siblings, too. I can easily picture myself in their place - I am someone for whom Christmas does not mean nearly as much as it seems to mean to other family members, and as I get older I peel away from more of the family traditions. Once my parents are gone, I imagine I would be perfectly happy ignoring Christmas for the rest of my life.

That said, I don't know how my younger sibling feels about it. If she were to reach out to me and say, hey, I'm really having a hard time with the loss of XYZ tradition / XYZ family member, can we do something together?, I would try really hard to find some way to get her needs met because I love her and want her to be happy. But without her making that effort I might just assume that, like me, she does the family tradition stuff to make other family members happy but isn't actually into it herself.

I don't know if you want to know that, if it's true of your siblings - maybe it would ruin the traditions for you to know they were being done not for their own sake but for yours? But maybe it would give you a chance to seek out new traditions that you can all genuinely enjoy together. I think it might be worth finding out.

Whatever happens, I'm sorry for your loss and I hope you can be gentle with yourself and your family this year. As others have said, the first big family holiday after a loss is uniquely terrible, sometimes. One way or another, it's likely to get better from here, whether or not that "better" looks exactly like it used to.
posted by Stacey at 5:17 AM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

It is only December 20!
Many people only get a few days off for the holidays and it sounds like your siblings are working. They also are in their early to mid 20s. Probably in recent years they've been students so they had more free time than they do now. You're on vacation but they are not. Please be more sensitive to that fact.
Why don't you ask your siblings what their work schedules are and find some time to spend together when they are off?
posted by k8t at 6:48 AM on December 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

Definitely reach out to your brother and sister, tell them you want to spend time with them, you live so far away you miss seeing them, etc. Be sensitive to the fact that they have their own commitments and stressors, but asking to see them when you've traveled so far isn't out of line. Maybe you can go over to your brother's house and hang with them, if he's too tired to be social at your parents'? (Obviously after his gf feels better!) Maybe a new tradition with your brother where you go out for breakfast one day before he has work? (And maybe use Lyft or whatever if you need to get somewhere?)

Them spending Christmas with the gf's family is tough, but it may help to think of it as, her family has been graciously holding their own Christmas traditions in abeyance so that your brother could have Christmases with your grandmother, and now the two of them would like to celebrate some of her traditions. Which doesn't make you feel great, but you can return the graciousness her family showed. I come from a family that does Big Christmas, and it's definitely hard as everyone gets married into families with their own Christmas traditions, but luckily every family we've married into has been generous about being flexible and sharing time, which is so much better than a situation where someone's really rigid and inflexible and greedy about "getting" Christmas all to themselves.

This was always going to be a weird and hard Christmas because of your loss of your grandmother, so be kind to yourself, feel what you feel, and know that even if everything were exactly the same, it would still be weird and hard and not feel super-great.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

My brother and I are only deaf ones in our extended family as well, so I hear you.

Answering from this perspective, I am with those who suggest you're going to have to be the one to pick up the ball. Talk to your brother, invite him out for something before you head back at the end of your holiday. Keep your eyes on next year and think about what you can do to see both your brother and sister independent of setting up your parents' house as your base and them coming there as well.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:35 AM on December 20, 2017

My grandparents died and my mother and I had the charming idea that we should make scrapbooks of their trip photos (because after he retired they took all these trips all over the place and took billions of snapshots) and send the scrapbooks to everyone in the family. So we did that over about three years. I'd imagined a kind of cozy, cocoa-drinking affair with, I don't know, lots of Mendlessohn twinkling low on the stereo and sharing the same afghan and pair of pinking shears and warm memories. Instead it was the most appalling three-year screaming match and recrimination swap you can imagine. I'm really glad we did it in retrospect, but dag, while it was going on... I mean, there was some happy reminiscing, too. But I will just say that family grief, even in happy families, is not necessarily going to be convivial. There may be a few rough Christmases. It'll work out eventually.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:12 PM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am sorry for your loss.

My mother has two sisters who live within a couple of hours of us, as do all of their children and grandchildren. My grandmother lived within a mile of us. Our tradition was that on Christmas day the entire family would gather at my grandmother's house for visiting and a gift exchange.

The year that my mother died I was in college. She passed away in the summer. For some reason that was never communicated to me, the family decided to end the tradition, and instead each of the sisters would host Christmas for their own extended families. My grandmother went to one of them, but not the other. I was belatedly invited to join her, like an after thought. I *needed* the normalcy of being with my family that first year without my mother. I think I ended up spending Christmas day with a college friend and their family. It was indescribably painful, and to this day I've blocked out a lot of it.

It's been nearly quarter of a century now and I have a family of my own and with the benefit of time and life experience I can pretty much understand why it all happened the way it did (though, my family has never discussed it. On that side of the family (downton abbey voice) the discussion of feelings is just not done, you see (/da voice).

If I had it to do all over again I would have forced the discussion. You don't have to be mean about it, you can just say "hey this part of traditional holiday visit is really important to me, any way we can make it happen?" But you have to be prepared for the idea that people grieve in different ways and sometimes the thing that you are saying you need is exactly the thing that someone else can't face without grandma around. It might be best to start this conversation with your parents, as perhaps your siblings have already told your parents what they can and can't handle.

You may decide to do some of those things on your own, like going to see the lights. It might suck and it might be incredibly painful, or you might find peace in it and use that time as an opportunity to commune with your grandma. Don't be afraid of the pain if it comes; sometimes the best way to move through grief is to allow yourself to really feel it, rather than try to shove it down.

Later in the year you would probably do well to talk with the family about what worked about this Christmas, what didn't work, and what new traditions the family might like to consider.
posted by vignettist at 3:31 PM on December 20, 2017

If you cook at all, can you make some soup for the sick girlfriend and take it over? Or a nice loaf of banana bread or something that makes her feel better? I would definitely go to your brother and say hi and ask how they are doing. I'm assuming you and your brother have a good relationship. Maybe he's just feeling sad and tired too and going to Grandma's house makes it worse.

When everyone is feeling miserable and helpless, choosing to reach out in love can break up the numbness and at very least, make *you* feel better. It won't be like it was, but your family is still there and still loves each other. Don't try to replace what you had, but just try to keep that connection alive.
posted by emjaybee at 5:10 PM on December 20, 2017

I am pretty close with my two brothers, especially my middle brother, and we do a lot of traditions kinda like that in my family. My oldest brother has always been close to us, but a bit more self-absorbed, and growing up I felt that he was always a flight risk. Haha. That's an odd way to put it, but I could always tell that, despite playing board games and such with us, he always wanted to do what he wanted, and part of him hanging with us was because it was fun, yes, but it was also convenient and in his comfort zone.

So when he found 'something better' to do, namely, when he seriously started dating, he kinda disappeared and his priorities (understandably) changed. For a while, we barely saw him. We barely played board games any more during the holidays. It was hurtful and we felt he was being somewhat selfish, as he was not checking in with my widowed mother either, but we couldn't really do anything about it. It's not like we could force him to hang around us. And I feel this might be the case with your brother. I assume this is a pretty serious girlfriend.

The good news was that when he settled down somewhat, my brother came around. Literally, he started coming around all the time, wanting to spend time with us, and rekindle holiday traditions. Part of it was having kids, but part of it was just growing older and missing our family dynamic. Since then, we started new and different traditions, and make points to meet up-- like for Sci-Fi night, etc. So, I mean, imagine that this is probably temporary, and while it comes at a terrible time for you due to your loss, it will pass. It did take a while, though, and in the interim I got a bit closer with my mother and other brother, which was fine.

The second thing we did was try to be inclusive of our traditions with his SO. So we started making new traditions with the girlfriend who then became the wife, and we did even new traditions when kids came along. YMMV. Ours did too, actually. His ex was a tyrant, and she was truly awful to us, especially my mother, so holidays were very strained for a while, but we still tried, and we still endured and tried to create new traditions. (For example, we didn't actually start wandering around to see nice lights displays until my brother's kids were old enough, so that became a new thing we did Xmas eve, to look at lights). It was nice, even if we were forced to compromise on our old traditions. Eventually, they separated, and when that happened, things got a bit better. When he met another major girlfriend, we got a bit worried, but we actually clicked immediately with her, and wanted to spend time with her, like watching bad movies and playing board games again, which we did. They also made time for us; no they didn't spend Christmas day with us like we used to, but they would swing around in the morning to exchange presents and say hi for an hour before heading off to her family, and they also set aside Xmas eve dinner for us. It was still nice, albeit different.

So I guess what I'm saying is: Traditions change, and you can make new ones that are still as heartfelt. When this happened to us, we reached out, found and set aside time for one another once a week, (this could work with your sister) and started inclusive traditions with others in our lives, like with SO's etc. So please don't lose hope and think things will be off forever. They won't! And definitely talk to them.

Best of luck!
posted by Dimes at 8:50 AM on December 21, 2017

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