Customize Rituals for the Holidays
By Connie Saindon, MA, LMFT
Founder of the Survivors of Violent Loss Network
It is well known that anniversary
dates and holidays, especially the first one, can be difficult for those who's
loved one has passed away. When this loss is an unnatural death, holidays can
seem unbearable and insurmountable. Thoughts of merriment may arouse feelings
of guilt and worries of being disloyal. Life is shattered for those who have
lost a loved one to a violent death and there are three basic assumptions that
are shattered after traumatic events as such. They are: life has meaning, the
world is safe, and I have worth.
These issues add to the burden for traditional days .
Rituals, ceremonies, and symbols
are necessary for the management of fears and the adaptation to changes
necessary in relationships after death.
Rituals serve to acknowledge change without threatening the overall social
order and allow one emotional engagement along with creating a safe distance
to ease the overwhelming pain of loss. Ceremonies help with adapting to what
has happened and work to compartmentalize the review of losses amid holiday
reminders. Symbols help replace painful intrusions and memories. An example
of this is when Ann worried about what she would do with the neck and tail of
the turkey at Thanksgiving. She stated that her brother, who was a homicide
victim the summer before, always claimed the turkey parts every year. This
holiday, she ate the tail in honor of her brother. She chuckled about her
experience saying: " I don't know what he ever saw in them: they’re all
fat!" Ann moved from being frozen about what to do, into an activity that
honored her brother and gave her an unexpected laugh; something she had been
unable to do since his death.
The work of Family Therapists' Evan Imber Black and Janine Roberts, emphasize the importance of rituals for many life events. They recommend setting up a separate activity prior to a holiday to acknowledge their loved one. An example would be setting aside a special night and inviting friends or family to bring favorite foods for an informal gathering. This special time could also be a time when photos are gathered to begin a memory album. This album could be worked on annually with more photos and stories collected each year. My family did this to help remember our sister who was a murder victim in 1961. Each family member selected photos and stories for their page and we continue to add to our album each year.
Not doing a special and separate activity tends to burden stressful holidays even more. Hoping to slip past such events without overwhelming reminders is difficult to do. A special time before the holiday can both honor the memory and mark the loss of your loved one. This frequently reduces the strain of the actual holiday.
It is important that rituals and ceremonies be customized. When one has lost an infant, doing an album may not work as there may be few photos and stories. One father who's young son was murdered has a ritual whereby he goes to a country store and buys his mother a new "snowbaby" ornament that she started collecting in honor of her grandson. Another father who states “heroin murdered my son” is heard singing songs at benefits from the CD that his son helped him write.
To develop your own rituals, consider some of the following ideas and share them with those struggling to cope. Your rituals will give others ideas when their thinking is blocked due to SUGS- sudden upsurges of grief. Activities can include the telling of stories; around a fireplace, or bonfire; going to the burial site and praying, chanting, singing, serving the needy, making charitable contributions, doing a difficult feat such as a hike, balloon rides, or a surfboard paddleout. Items to use for rituals could be candles, rosemary (for remembrance), seeds, sand, feathers, balloons, crayons, rocks, ribbon, music, stars, and irises (for hope).
Janoff-Bulman, R., 1992.
Shattered assumptions, toward a new psychology of trauma, The Free Press,
Macmillan, Inc. New York.
Connie Saindon is author of The Journey: Ten Steps to Learning to Live with Violent Death and contributing author of Violent Death: Resilience and Intervention Beyond the Crisis. Ms Saindon teaches on online course on PTSD and Violent Death. Contact Connie for more information about books, training and consultations:
Download How to Help a Friend in Grief - a section of the award winning book by Bill Jenkins What To Do When The Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss. Mr. Jenkins has made this page available copyright free for everyone to use to give to friends of the grieving.