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 or 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 also help.
In the United States, our culture does not handle death and grief particularly well. Most people ignore death until it is on one's doorstep. Then, when one can no longer ignore reality, grief is viewed as a process to be dealt with as quickly as possible. However, other cultures speak of death openly and frequently. For these cultures, death is not something to sweep under the rug.
Some Central American countries hold a Vela celebrating and memorializing the deceased. 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 marks the lives of the deceased with the food, drinks, and activities the person enjoyed. Family members clean gravesites and hold parades and parties.
Growing up in the U.S., it seemed strange and odd whenever someone mentioned the Day of the Dead. However, I had the opportunity to study abroad one summer in Mexico, where I learned much about the Day of the Dead. Instead of being something "foreign" and "other," I came to view it as a 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 already, creating rituals to remember loved ones helps all grieving people continue to process emotions and learn how to deal with death in healthy and constructive ways.
Stop and think for a moment about 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 good or unhealthy past, you need to establish an environment with your kids and grandkids which helps them through the grieving process. My husband and I occasionally talk with our son about our impending old age and death 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. If none of these resonate with you, create rituals that work for you and your family.
Make a family rule where talking about your late loved ones is okay. If your Uncle John would have loved a particular activity or event, then say so. If someone tells a funny joke which Sue would have laughed over until she cried, 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 laughter, sometimes with a bit of angst over how difficult they were. Sometimes they even cry, but they talk without shame. There is healing in talking.
Celebrate the deceased's birth date. The joy of their birthdate still exists. 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. One of 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, they include pictures of the deceased. It is an excellent way for little ones to learn about family members and 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 opening presents, they take the envelope down, and the family learns about a donation made 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 they surprise everyone on Christmas day.
Create a small memorial area in your home. One person hangs portraits of her late family in the hallway. Another has a cross with pictures clustered around it. Before my mom died, she had a photo of her oldest son surrounded by angels and candlesticks that would turn off and on by timer to keep his picture illuminated. These memorials can be in public or private spaces in your home. 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 include his image. I was not ready until a couple of weeks ago. Now, the little family unit I grew up with is all together.
On an important note, there are ways not to remember your loved one. If you become grumpy or angry around the deceased's birthday, favorite holiday, or death date, acknowledge this and seek counseling to work through issues. (The same applies if you need to turn to medication or alcohol.) I know one family member who routinely becomes unbearable when death dates occur. While being angry or upset at a loss is acceptable, taking it out on others is inappropriate. There is a difference between healthy anger or sadness and consistently lashing out at family and friends.
As I approach my brother's birthday, I am still thinking of how to honor him. I know 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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