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How Holiday Rituals Can Comfort Grieving Family Caregivers

Create a personalized remembrance to honor a loved one who has passed

spinner image Pulling out photo albums and telling stories about your loved ones can help with grief during the holidays.
Halfpoint/Getty Images

As the holidays approached, 55-year-old Carol found herself dreading the usual family gatherings.

She loved her family, but this would be the first time her mother, recently deceased from cancer, would not be there in the kitchen helping with cooking or in her accustomed seat at the dining room table. Carol was already grieving severely and was afraid she would only feel her mother’s absence more keenly.

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To comfort herself, and perhaps other family members, she decided to create a family ritual. For Thanksgiving, she and her oldest daughter made her mother’s carrot cake recipe, with its thick cream cheese frosting, which everyone had always loved.

As she placed the cake on the table when it was time for dessert, Carol announced: “We made this in honor of Mom. She was a sweet lady who made a sweet cake. I miss her very much.” After dinner, several family members thanked her for making the cake and for bringing up Mom so that everyone felt comfortable reminiscing about her.

With this one small act, Carol had accomplished multiple important psychological tasks.

She had publicly acknowledged her mother and her mother’s death in a loving way. She had broken the conspiracy of silence around death that sometimes reigns at family events because family members want to avoid upsetting one another. And by making the recipe with her daughter, she had demonstrated that the family and its traditions would go forward despite the loss of a cherished family member.

Food, with its flavors and smells drawn from long cultural and family traditions, is an especially powerful stimulus for conjuring memories of happier days with loved ones who have passed. But there are many other holiday rituals commonly used by now-former caregivers to grieve the care receivers they took care of for years.

Some former caregivers organize close family members to visit the care receiver’s grave to lay a wreath or perhaps stake a pennant from the hometown football team. Others say prayers or sing a care receiver’s favorite hymn before or after the holiday meal. Some pull out photo albums and tell stories.

All these rituals provide solace and a means for family members to support one another in increased communion at a time when the loss may still feel fresh.

How can former caregivers create their own holiday rituals to help them grieve and bring their family members together? Here are some ideas.

Reflect on how to honor loved one's legacy

The most effective holiday rituals capture some important aspect of the care receiver’s life or personality. It would not make sense to leave a baseball cap on their headstone if they were indifferent to the game.

Reflect first as a family on what would be appropriate to honor them and their legacy. Should you organize a group to do an Alzheimer’s walk or attend a local cancer center’s annual memorial candle lighting? Only if the departed loved one expressed determination to help others facing those diseases.

How about sprinkling their ashes in the ocean? Do so only if spending time on the water held a special place in their hearts. The more the ritual brings up specific memories, thoughts and feelings about the departed, the more powerful its salutary effect on the living will be.

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Make plans that leave room for spontaneity

Like any family event, a good holiday ritual takes some preparation, even if that means shredding carrots, whipping eggs and buying cream cheese for a carrot cake. It should not be so scripted, though, that other family members can’t contribute in spontaneous and unexpected ways.

When Carol and her daughter set aside a Saturday to buy the ingredients and make the cake — a ritual itself for the two of them — the daughter shared advice her grandmother had given her that Carol had never heard before. When they served the cake at Thanksgiving, other family members told funny stories about Carol’s mother that Carol had forgotten.

As family members felt moved to share, it created an emotional environment of mutual closeness, some sadness and loving appreciation.

Remember others who are grieving

Rituals can touch whole communities. Consider creating one for recently bereaved caregivers who you know are already experiencing an upsurge of grief this holiday season.

During the years I worked in a primary care practice, we had a tradition of delivering green-and-red poinsettias around the holidays to the family caregivers of our patients who had died during the previous 12 months. Each plant was accompanied by a card that said: “We know the holiday season is a hard time for families who have recently lost a relative. We haven’t forgotten about you or your loved one.”

Every former caregiver who received this gift was surprised; many cried. It was not the lovely plant. It was that others had remembered their former caregiving and loss with a simple but powerful gesture.

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