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Customize Rituals for the Holidays

To ease pain of loss and traumatic grief

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.[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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).

[1] Janoff-Bulman, R., 1992. Shattered assumptions, toward a new psychology of trauma, The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc. New York.

[2]Goffman, E., 1971. Relations in public. New York: Harper and Row.

[3]Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J., 1992. Rituals for our times. New York: Harper Collins

[4]Rando, T., 1993. Treatment of complicated mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

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.

Survivors of Violent Loss exists to build a lifeline of hope and healing by providing support and education to those who live and work with violent death. Coping isn't easy. Survivors of Violent Loss can help. (619) 685-0005