- Gladys Childs
Creating Family Rituals to Remember a Loved One Who has Passed Away.
April 30th would have been my brother's 57th birthday. This year there will be no phone call and no series of texts where I send every birthday GIF I find his way. As I approach almost four months into the grieving process, my brother's birthday is the first hurdle in finding a new normal.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 says, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." (NIV) While this and other truths from God help, provide comfort, and aid in finding a new normal, I believe rituals of remembrance help as well.
In the United States, our culture does not handle death and grief particularly well. Death is ignored until it is on one's doorstep. Then, when reality can no longer be ignored, grief is viewed as a process to be dealt with as quickly as possible. However, there are other countries whose cultures allow death to be spoken of openly and frequently. For these cultures, death is not something to sweep under the rug.
Some Central America countries hold a Vela where the deceased is celebrated, and memories exchanged. Many countries in Central and South America also celebrate the Day of The Dead which originated in Mexico. It is a combination of Aztec rituals with Catholicism. It celebrates the lives of the deceased with the food, drinks, and activities the person enjoyed in life. Gravesites are cleaned and there are parades and dancing.
Having grown up in the U.S., whenever the Day of the Dead was mentioned, it seemed strange and odd to me. However, I had the opportunity to study abroad one summer in Mexico where I was able to learn a great deal about the Day of the Dead. Instead of it being something "foreign" and "other," I came to view it as a rather healthy expression of grieving and the cycle of life. And, while we may or may not be ready to celebrate death through a Latino lens if we do not do so already, creating rituals to remember loved ones helps all who are grieving to continue to process emotions and learn how to deal with death in healthy and constructive ways.
Stop and think for a moment on how your family handled grief when you were growing up. Was it healthy? Was there openness? Was it ignored? Were you expected to get over it? Ponder for a moment. Now, in light of your past, whether good or unhealthy, it is important for you to establish an environment with your kids and/or grandkids which helps them through the grieving process. My husband and I talk with our son about our impending old age and deaths every once in a while, to help him know what to do.
Here are some simple ways to create family rituals to celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed. This is not an exhaustive list. If none of these resonate with you, then create rituals which work for you and your family.
Make a family rule where it is okay to talk about your late loved ones. If your Uncle John would have loved a certain activity or event, then say so. If someone tells a funny joke Sue would have laughed over until she cried and wet her pants, then mention Sue. In all my years of ministry, I have only met one family who openly talks about their late loved ones. Usually it is with much laugher, sometimes with a bit of angst over how difficult he or she was at times. Sometimes they even cry; but they talk without shame. There is healing in talking.
Celebrate the deceased's birth date. If there was a birthday tradition for this individual, then continue it. Eat their favorite birthday food, go to their favorite birthday spot, post a memorial online, visit the gravesite, read their favorite scripture, or donate to a worthy cause. The joy of their birthdate does not have to be forgotten. One my friends decorates her child's grave site every birthday with items the child would have loved.
Have pictures of the deceased at family gatherings and family picture taking events. One dear family I know has pictures of their lost loved ones at all family holidays. When it comes time to take a group photo, the photos of the deceased are held so everyone whether alive or dead is included. I think it is a great way for little ones to learn about family members and family history.
Start a holiday tradition. Pick the person's favorite holiday and then create an appropriate ritual. Some of my friends and their family do "The White Envelope" tradition in memory of their late son each Christmas. Tucked in their Christmas tree each year is a white envelope. After the presents are opened, the envelope is taken down and the family learns what cause will be supported with a donation in memory of their lost loved one. Each year a different adult in the family gets to select where the donation will go and then he or she surprises everyone on Christmas day.
Create a small memorial area in your home. One person hangs pictures of her late family in the hallway. Another has a cross with pictures clustered around it. Before my mom died, she had a picture of her oldest son surrounded by angels and candlesticks that would turn off and on by timer, so his picture was always illuminated. Some of these memorials are front and center, while others are hidden in a back room. I have a memorial decoration a lady in our church gave me after my mom's death. I immediately put my mom's and dad's pictures by it. When my brother died this year, I could not bring myself to include his picture. I was not ready until a couple of weeks of ago. Now, the little family unit I grew up with is all together.
On an important note, there are ways to not remember your loved one. If you find yourself becoming grumpy or angry around the deceased's birthday or favorite holiday or death date, acknowledge this and seek counseling to work through issues. (The same holds true if you feel the need to turn to medication or alcohol.) I have a family member who routinely becomes unbearable when death dates draw near. While it is fine to be angry or upset at the loss, to take it out on others is not appropriate. There is a difference between healthy anger or sadness and consistently lashing out at family and friends.
For me, as I approach my brother's birthday, I am still thinking of how to best honor him. One thing I know for sure is I will search for birthday GIFS, just as I would in the past, knowing he would have loved everyone I find.
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