Grieving and the Holidays

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My husband Don died 9 months ago after a rapid decline; and his lungs basically stopped working, even with oxygen treatments.  His death has been hard for us as a family in many ways, as he lived only about 6 months after getting the diagnosis, and we are now facing the first Christmas without him.  He was always the “social magnet” for every occasion with family and friends, the one who would take them fishing, cook the meals, and tell the stories.  So it is hard to imagine going through the season without him.

But my main question is, how can I talk with my four grown children about the “elephant in the room” created by their father’s death when we get together for the first holiday with his family in California for a week?  All but one of them live in different states, but I write them every week, and often share thoughts and hopes their father had for their lives.  But I’m not much of a telephone person.  And I guess I also don’t call much because I hate to break down in tears and bring them down whenever I get them on the line.

So what should I do when we are together for a week?  If I ask them how they are doing, they’ll just say “Fine.”  But it really feels like we are just walking on eggshells.  We can get through the gift exchanges and dinners, but I know we really need to connect more if we still are going to be a family.


Dear Mary,

I can imagine that this will be a very different holiday for you, in another state both geographically and emotionally in the wake of Tom’s illness and death.  And your story makes clear that your grief, like most people’s, is something that happens both within you as individuals and between you as members of a family trying to reorganize without his big presence in your family get togethers.  And so, in the uncomfortable silence that can arise in the presence of his family and your own, you are now thrust into the role of being the conversation manager, a role that might naturally have naturally fallen to Don.

So how can you make opportunities for meaningful encounters, especially with your children, rather than practice a kind of vigilant mutual avoidance of the most important and obvious topic of the season, namely your shared loss?  Fortunately, the holidays typically provide multiple natural opportunities for “real” moments of meeting and meaning, even if these are brief and punctuated by attention to the many activities and topics that will also naturally occupy your attention during this period.  Here are a few ideas.

  1.  Give the gifts that keep on giving.  Might you select a small gift, perhaps something of Don’s, to give to each child on his behalf?  No doubt you can think of many things that could symbolize some kind of bond with each of the kids:  maybe a special fishing lure, book, article of clothing, or memento of a family trip.  Such things can provide both a cherished “linking object” that honors their unique bond with their father, and also serve as “conversation starters” about shared memories of a heartwarming or humorous type.  The fact that this gift exchange will occur in the presence of his extended family–who might also be recipients of such gifts–can increase this effect, as each invites an explanation to those less familiar with its meaning, or who might have sharesd relevant times with him fishing, enjoying meals, and more, who could have their own stories to tell.  Whatever their commercial value, the gifts labeled with a tag “From Dad” or “From Don” are likely to be treasured for both of these reasons for years to come.
  1.  Make room for him on the tree.  Consider contributing an ornament to the Christmas tree that invokes Don’s presence:  perhaps it is a little wooden fishing boat, or an ornament he himself bought on a family outing.  You can be sure that its simple presence on the tree will invite his presence in the room and in the thoughts of those who walk by, conveying the feeling that he is indeed with you during this season in your hearts and minds.
  1.  Invite Don to the table.  Given that Don apparently cooked for special occasions, and likely had favorite foods, might you individually or you as a family cook a favorite dish of his to share?  Almost certainly such dishes, like the gifts, will both honor him and prompt shared memories.  And if you really want to invoke his presence, set an extra place at the table for him.  The empty chair could be a strong ritual statement of both his presence and absence–perhaps too strong for some families, but just right for others.  Keeping in mind the principle behind the practice, you’ll be able to find the symbolic statement that fits just right for your family.

In sum, the holidays naturally afford opportunities for remembrance and renewal, though these need not pervade every context and conversation as you find new ways to move forward together as a family.  Experimenting with a few ideas like those above will let you find creative ways to beckon Don into the gatherings as an invited rather than intrusive presence.  And as voices and stories begin to fill the silence, you will have lit a symbolic candle in a time that otherwise might be dark.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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