Traditions: What to Keep and What to Let Go

Traditions are very important to our families, and we may share large and small ones throughout the year. Some may be in conjunction with significant events like a graduation or a wedding, and others occur annually on birthdays and holidays. Traditions are passed down through generations, creating comforting experiences and memories that provide a sense of belonging. After our child, grandchild, brother, or sister dies, however, what once was comforting can be painful and intolerable.

This holiday time of the year is often particularly hard for managing different needs within our bereaved families. Whether a few months have passed, a few years, or decades, the empty chair that belonged to our child, sibling, or grandchild, requires us to re-evaluate how traditions feel. Trying to keep a tradition that fit our “before” family may not feel the same or good.

It is especially important to recognize the differing needs of siblings and parents when deciding what to keep and what to let go. For a parent, trying to continue a tradition as it was but with one less child can be very heartbreaking. For a bereaved sibling, losing a tradition that they came to depend on can feel like they’re losing even more and have less to count on than ever. When one sibling remains, it can feel overly burdensome to be the sole daughter or son who carries those traditions.

What can we do to manage such deep and personal needs that differ in a family after substantial loss? Here are some steps that can help.

  • Sit down together and discuss how everyone is feeling about the upcoming holidays.
  • Allow everyone to share how continuing each tradition makes them feel and which may be prohibitively distressing this year.
  • Listen compassionately to one another, understanding that needs can vary widely within any loving family unit.
  • Work hard to compromise. Try to differentiate what might be difficult for a family member to continue from what would be unbearable.
  • Eliminate the ones, for now, that would bring more harm than benefit to any family member.
  • Reduce holiday expectations so that each family member has a chance to cherish a tradition that is meaningful and grieve what has been lost.
  • Keep traditions that are too upsetting for anyone until another year. Individual and family needs change year to year, and there may be room for those another time.

Having these challenging discussions can be surprisingly valuable as they prompt deeper sharing that can bring us closer. Even long-time bereaved parents, grandparents, and siblings can find decision making about what to keep and what to let go of painful at different stages. Allow the flexibility to change when something doesn’t feel right since we may be surprised by painful triggers. As we remain open and flexible through each year that passes, we help our families keep some traditions, modify others, and cherish what remains.

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Comments (5)

  • Thank you for the newsletter. My son Tom passed 26 years ago at the age of 22 and there isn’t a single Thanksgiving , Christmas or Easter that my husband and I feel less of the huge hole that was left by his passing. After all our other children are gone, and family and friends have gone home , we sit in silence and without talking we know who we are missing so much , it hurts like the worst pain. Then, we proceed to stay focus on some tv show that neither one of us knows what’s going on. The pain of loss is so crippling, and as the next sunrise comes around , we go back to coping and healing. Compassionate Friends helped me immensely the first and second year, and even now I look forward to hearing how to best cope with the holidays, and how to know other people in this group Really understand what parents with the loss of a child or grandchild go through. Thank you for being there for me.

  • What we focus on, we harvest. Our children who are passed on are now alive and live eternally in the third heaven. We are not victims. We are the parent(s) of a light being. Yes! There is horrendous grief and tremendous post trauma. Yes, we need to stay in our grief and acknowledge our loss on every level. Have we to forgive anyone? Anyone? Forgive and give that person(s} to God, Our Creator to move through. We cannot fix anyone. Only God can. At the time of our deep grief, we are not processing what has happened. Our mind simply does not contact our brain. There is a huge disconnect during this time. We are designed to process our grief and that spirit of grief brings us healing. Apart from the grief is the blessing. Do we miss our child? Of course, we do, big time! No matter how we try to move through our pain, our mind brings us to refocus during our grief process. When we make a choice to sit in our sorrow; we show our family how to be victims. When we comply with the One Who created us, we move through at our own pace with HIM at the helm. My child passed on in 2019. I feel her presence, especially when I need her. I praise and thank God for all my blessings. I obey HIM. I keep my mind focused on HIS way. The reality we have; is our child passed on before we did. I choose reality. Otherwise, I am choosing to be incarcerated in pain and confusion.

  • This newsletter is what I needed to read today. My youngest son, Kelley, passed away six months ago at the age of 28. It’s saw raw and the pain is excruciating. Marta’s words are perfect, it’s the worst pain imaginable, crippling. We have two older sons, but obviously, they can’t take Kelley’s place and there is a huge hole, such emptiness. My husband, their father, is also in the last stage of early-onset Alzheimer’s and Kelley was always there for me – we were there for each other, through that as well. People, friends, cannot begin to understand and they compare it to the loss of parents, a divorce or even their dog’s passing, and even though I’m familiar with that pain as well, it’s absolutely not the same. They keep telling me I need to move on. I’m just starting to look for a chapter and reading this as well gives me the strength to look now.

  • It’s soon going to be 11 years since my son Jason passed away into Heaven. I sincerely understand your pain. Your words speak volumes to my heart, and I’m sending you both a prayerful hug.
    From, Jason’s Mom

  • I can relate to your story. Although my son Lance passed away only 4 years ago at age 34 I can see that it will probably always be a time-stopper as the years progress. What you said is what I felt this Thanksgiving and when I heard that from others in one of the first meetings I attended I didn’t think I wanted to accept that rather that the pain would not be as great each holiday never mind each day. I appreciate comments by others as it comforts me just to hear that others are feeling the same thing. When you feel your thoughts are your own it hurts much more intensely because it just feels more isolated and hopeless. When you realize others have similar thoughts it makes you feel comforted and embraced so thank you. I will think of you and your son, Tom this Christmas and every time I think of mine because I REALLY understand.

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