CUSTOMIZE RITUALS FOR THE HOLIDAYS:
TO EASE PAIN OF LOSS AND TRAUMATIC GRIEF
by Connie Saindon, M.A., LMFT
It is well known among professionals that anniversary dates and holidays,
especially the first one, can be difficult for those whose loved one has
passed away. When the loss involves an unnatural death, holidays can seem
unbearable and insurmountable. Thoughts of merriment may arouse feelings of
guilt and disloyalty.
Life is shattered for those who have lost a loved one to a violent death.
In her book on the subject, Janoff-Bulman states that three basic
assumptions are shattered after traumatic events, they are:
- Life has
- The world is safe
- I have worth.
These issues add to the
burden for traditional days.
Goffman says that rituals are necessary for the management of fears, and
for the adaptation to the changes necessary in relationships after death. Rituals
serve to acknowledge change without threatening the overall social order.
Ceremonies help with adapting to what has happened. Rituals allow one to be
emotionally engaged while creating a safe distance to ease the overwhelming
pain of loss. Ceremonies work to compartmentalize the review of losses amid
holiday reminders. Symbols help replace painful images 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 this past July, always made a fuss and
got 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. An example is an album created by my family to
help remember our sister who was a murder victim in 1961. Many different times
were set up to do the album. Copies were made of photos and returned to
their owner. Each family member selected photos and stories for their page.
Our family continues to get more photos and stories to add to our album.
The album dedication says, "to our loving sister and daughter who lives on
in all of us."
Not doing a special and separate activity tends to burden stressful
holidays even more. Hoping to slip past such events without overwhelming
reminders is not wise. 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 whose 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" sings songs at benefits from the CD
that his son helped him write.
A new and quite spontaneous evening developed last year after the first of
our projects' support groups had ended. Realizing that the groups ended
early in December, and participants had the holidays to face, we informally
asked folks to gather one evening in the middle of December and bring an
ornament. We asked that this ornament be symbolic of their loved one,
which they could hang on the holiday tree (a tree that is always put up in
the waiting room). Anyone with whom we had a chance to talk during that
brief time who had suffered a loss or had worked on the project was invited
to attend and encouraged to bring more family and friends. We had a room full
people who shared songs, inspirationals and ornaments, hung one-by-one. So
this year we will create a similar, but different evening, for this now
To develop your own rituals, consider some of the following ideas. Talk
about your rituals with others who suffer similar losses. Your rituals will
give others ideas when their thinking is blocked due to SUGS -- sudden
upsurges of grief (our term based
on the work of Theresa Rando). SUGS usually result in temporary
confusion that participants call "brain mush" when reminders flood them
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, irises (for hope) and more.
It is important to remember that although these ideas may help to ease the
pain of this loss, nothing will bring the loved one back or erase all the
images of how they died. There's no "getting over it," but this may be one
more step in your journey.
Both public and private professionals need rituals to deal with the impact
of trauma and loss that they encounter, too. Avoiding these rituals can
lead to feelings that accumulate, and may become displaced on others. They
may also jeopardize one's health. Your ritual can be a group or personal
event customized for your needs
Connie Saindon, M.A., MFT, has been a Licensed Marital and Family
Therapist since 1979. In addition to providing services for
Individuals, couples and families, Ms. Saindon is among the few
specialists in the field of violent death bereavement. Founder the
Survivors of Violent Death Program and volunteer faculty at the
University of California Medical School Department of Psychiatry, she
is author of The Journey, Violent Death Bereavement: Adult Survivors
Workbook and contributing author of Violent Death: Resilience and
Intervention beyond the Crisis. To reach her, please see this page.