New Perspective on Old Traditions: Grief and the Holidays

Friends, the time has come. Gather up your emotional armor and summon all your strength for today you will begin your journey into the holiday season. We (yes we’re with you!) will not be defeated. Neither an unrelenting barrage of grief triggers nor the logistical quagmires presented by holiday tradition will drag us into a depression filled with Bravo TV and Dorito smeared sweatpants. We’ve got this.

I suppose you already knew the holiday season was fast approaching. Even if you’ve ripped November and December clean out of your calendar, it’s kind of impossible to miss. It started with the jarring conversion of Target’s holiday section and was solidified by the reintroduction of ‘holiday beverages’ at your local coffee emporium.

As society shifts its focus, those in the world of grief support follow and you may have noticed an influx of articles with titles just like the one your reading right now. If you consider the complexities of grief and family dynamics, you can see why the insight around grief and the holidays can sometimes seem pretty vague and repetitive.  In fact, one of the most common questions we hear from grievers at the holidays, “how should we handle tradition?” has one of the most characteristically open ended answers. Still, at the risk of wasting a few minutes, I compel you to wander down this road with us.

Tradition and ritual are things you do recurrently, but they are not routine. These are not automatic actions like buckling your seatbelt or brushing your teeth, they are the chosen and deliberate threads that bind you and those you love together. The traditions and rituals of your clan we’re built with meaning and purpose and they provide participants with a sense of identity, comfort and security. The meaning behind ritual is what makes it so important.

The main directive behind our practical plan for dealing with the holidays after a death is for those facing their first or second (or even third or fourth) holiday after a loss to gather their family, including the oldest and the youngest members, and have a discussion about shared holiday ritual. In examining each tradition the group should decide whether they should keep the tradition the same; whether the tradition will have to change due to the loss of their loved one, logistics and/or shifting family roles; or whether they will have to skip the tradition altogether, either because it’s lost meaning or because it’s too difficult to continue.

By far the two hardest outcomes to accept are that a tradition should be changed or skipped. After a loved one dies, grievers often find themselves in a terrible predicament. You are already in the habit of yearning for earlier and easier times. Tradition, imbued with it’s memory and connection, magnifies the contrast of then vs. now into vidid clarity. You think, if only you could keep your family traditions the same you might realize that past sense of safety and comfort for yourself and for your family. The idea of letting go of these traditions makes you feel untethered and like you’re giving up on a life when your loved one was still alive.

Yet your loved one has died and you must acknowledge things will be different. Traditions your loved one used to be involved with will have to change and even those they weren’t a part of may seem entirely too difficult to manage. The worst thing you can do is set your holidays on autopilot and hope things work themselves out. Not only does this put you at risk of being majorly blindsided by your grief, but it also takes away from your traditions. When you engage in ritual solely because it’s the way things have always been and to no one’s benefit, it begins to unravel and turn into something meaningless and obligatory.


As you grapple with the gloomy prospect of altered holidays and disrupted tradition, I’d like to offer you a few thoughts to make things seem a little more optimistic and a little less ruined until the end of time.

1.  Small rituals are just as important as larger traditions:  

Because tradition bonds family together and creates a sense of security and comfort, the thought of letting go of some of its larger framework can be scary.  You might worry that your family is giving up or, if you are typically looked upon to uphold tradition, that you’re letting others down.  Even worse, you may feel like your losing your fight to hold onto deceased loved ones as more and more of the life you shared with them changes.

While there is great value in maintaining large holiday tradition whenever possible, there are times when it won’t be possible.  But rest assured there is just as much value in continuing smaller rituals which may be easier uphold. Small things, like a holiday song you sing or a dish you always serve at Thanksgiving, show your love and investment in the family in ways that are often even more meaningful than the bigger events.  And, as Meg Cox notes in her book, The Book of New Family Traditions (Revised and Updated): How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day

“…it’s the everyday traditions that determine how we experience our families and demonstrate hands-on love for our children.”  

So, if you continue to engage in the little things on a regular basis like a daily phone call with your daughter at college, a weekly dinner with your grandchildren, or a simple phrase you say before the kids leave for school in the morning (my dad used to say every morning “have a creative and productive day”); holiday season or not, you have already begun to solidify your family bonds.  Focus on the small ties that bind and then you will be stronger to handle changes on a large scale as a family.

2.  Tradition doesn’t have to be perfect:

After a death it’s common to feel a lot of pressure for the holidays to be perfect.  For one, your family has been through hell and they deserve a nice holiday.  You may also want things to go perfectly as proof to either yourself or others that you are okay and you can still do the holidays with style despite your loss.  But in the years following a loss, how could your holiday possibly be “perfect” without your deceased loved one?

Besides, in reflecting on holidays past what’s more likely to make you smile, the holiday when you had spaghetti for dinner because the dog ate the roast or the year everything went as planned?  When it comes to family, imperfection is perfection.  Working together to get through the holidays despite inescapable flaws will help deepen family bonds and create a supportive environment for grief and remembrance.

3.  It doesn’t make sense to compare:

If you were worried about how your holiday will measure up to the past, you can stop right there.  This is one worry you can check off your list because, as we’ve established, everything has changed and your holiday won’t be the same.  There is no sense in trying to compare.  Just as you have to recreate and redefine meaning in everyday life, after a loss it will be necessary to recreate and refine which holiday traditions and rituals you find meaning in.

4.  Change is okay and doesn’t have to be permanent:

Change is a natural part of family life and so we should allow some elasticity when it comes to family tradition and ritual.  This is easier said than done because accepting change often means having to accept new roles, new responsibilities and a new perspectives.  For example, a mother who has always been in charge of tradition for her family might have difficulty transitioning to the role of the grandmother who plays more of a secondary role in the rituals of her adult children and their families.  Although it’s scary to let go of old traditions, resisting new tradition means closing herself off to experiencing the shared meaning of new ritual.

Change is okay.  I’m willing to bet your family makeup has changed plenty of times over the years and your traditions have adapted accordingly; of course none of these changes felt quite as distressing as the death of a family member and so this shift requires adjustment on a much larger scale.  But it’s important to be open to change and to experiencing meaning in your rituals however they may be altered.

Discuss the current tradition, why it may be hard, and decide as as a family what you should do.  Although it’s tough to change traditions your deceased loved one was a part of, being together and being at peace should be the top priority.  Don’t worry, if you want to reinstate an old tradition in the future there’s no reason why you can’t.  These rituals are ingrained in your family history, they don’t simply disappear in the blink of an eye.

5.  This is an opportunity:

Through tradition and ritual you have an opportunity to find meaningful and lasting ways to remember your loved ones and allow them to continue to play a role in your holiday celebration.  Your family will know what traditions are the most reflective of the continued influence your loved one has on the holiday.  If you’re looking for ways to include your loved one in your upcoming holiday, you might find this post on remembering your loved ones during the holidays helpful.

These perspectives were crystalized after reading Meg Cox’s book The Book of New Family Traditions (Revised and Updated): How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day. Although this book doesn’t cover handling tradition after a death in detail, it’s a great resource for parents and I would especially recommend it for those trying to establish a sense of normalcy and security for children following a loss.

The holidays are just getting started so be sure to subscribe to receive our posts straight to your inbox.  You may also want to check out our print resource on coping with the holidays after a death.  

March 28, 2017

4 responses on "New Perspective on Old Traditions: Grief and the Holidays"

  1. I lost my son almost one year ago . We are changing everything for the holidays this year .

  2. thank you so much for this……your time, emotional effort and investment is greatly appreciated. My thought is, if you try something new and it does not fit….does not mean you have to do it again next year. Rituals are desired.

  3. Hi, I lost both of my parents six years ago. They passed away with several months of each and ended up book ending the holidays, I lost one in early November and one in January. I have struggled to find a way to make a “new normal” for the holidays. Do you have any suggestions for starting new traditions?

  4. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)November 11, 2014 at 1:43 pmReply

    Excellent suggestions, Eleanor ~ thank you. Sharing! ♥

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