On Dec. 19, 1999, my niece and nephew, Brian and Michelle Pace were killed in a car accident while driving home from our family Christmas. Brian and Michelle were two of my older sister's three children. Brian was 25, Michelle 21, and the only survivor, the youngest, Laura 20, was in critical care for 11 days at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. Our family had a double funeral the day after Christmas.
Facing the holidays, after the death of a loved one, involves some decision making about what traditions to keep and what to change. As small children, Brian and Michelle had made ornaments with their little school pictures glued onto them, as gifts to us. They were on our tree every Christmas, but the first Christmas after the accident, it was too painful to get those out. Our family decided to decorate the entire tree with stars instead, to honor their memory. We had seen a falling star shortly after the funeral and it seemed like a symbol of hope to us.
Now in the role of bereavement facilitator for Trinity Hospice, I see many families who are also struggling with how to have hope through the holidays. Energy can be low and traditions and memories, although wonderful, can sometimes seem too painful. It is important to talk with family members and decide whether to keep or change traditions.
Many people find the anticipation is worse than the actual day. Feelings of dread, sadness and the desire to skip the holidays are all normal. Be gentle with yourself, and choose to be with people who are supportive. It is helpful to make a plan for what you want to do on that day to honor your loved one. Families have made luminaries, taken their loved ones' favorite cookies to family and friends, or had a quiet toast. Lighting a special candle before the family meal, and sharing funny stories can be helpful to grief. Laughter is good, because life goes on.
There is not a right or wrong way to grieve. Spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be can provide hope and strength.
For children, holidays without someone they love are just as painful as for adults. Maybe more so, depending on what traditions end with the death. If Mom was the one who bought all the gifts, at Christmas, her death means not only having lost Mom, but also the loss of her ability to choose those wonderful gifts. The gift certificate from Dad may not be as fun to play with on Christmas day. If Dad organized the family games, his death may leave the family wondering how to fill the time.
The magic of the holidays is usually more exciting for children than for adults. To help maintain some of the magic, it is important they have structure and security during this time. Children gain comfort from routine, so maintaining family traditions as much as possible is a good idea. A family tradition does not have to be celebrated exactly as it always was. Maybe a family who always had an evening dinner could plan a brunch. Traditions can be modified and still be meaningful.
After a death, the best way to find out what the kids would find most comforting and meaningful, is to ask them. This sounds simple, but you would be surprised at how often it is overlooked. It is not unusual for an adult to think they know what is best for a child and plan events without their input.
After losing a grandfather, one family decided to decorate their tree with fish and fishing poles. The children were involved in making ornaments out of construction paper, glue and paste. Another family decorated a baseball tree and put their father's baseball cap on the top. Initially, putting up a tree had been dreaded, but this tree was such a comfort to them, it was left up until February.
Some people find comfort in decorating the grave with an evergreen grave blanket or solar lights, some people never want to go to the grave. It is important to do what is helpful to you and your family. At the same time, family members will grieve in different ways. One person may want to talk about their loved one a lot, while another one does not. Respecting each other's differences is ultimately important. It can be helpful to find people who are good listeners outside of the family.
My sister and her husband "adopted" a grandmother who was raising six of her grandchildren and now every Christmas gather donations for them and deliver them.
This is one of the many ways they honor Brian and Michelle's memory. It is often therapeutic to reach out to others, and makes the memory of our loved one "live on." The goal in grief is not to "let go" of our love, but to find ways to carry that love with us, to honor our special loved ones.
Now, the handmade ornaments are back on the tree and our family reflects on how lucky we were/are to have Brian and Michelle in our family.
Cindy Schuman is the Trinity Hospice bereavement facilitator.