Heart-happy Holiday Memorials

By Sharon Naylor

October 30, 2014 5 min read

If you're planning your family's holiday celebration and thinking about how you'd like to honor the memory of a departed loved one, you're likely concerned with how to pay tribute to a loved one who's no longer with you without depressing all of your guests, especially if this is the first holiday season since your loved one's passing.

In a time of family togetherness, with all of those cherished traditions that bond your family, you and they may feel your loved one's absence even more. Your departed father might always have been the one to carve the turkey or slice the ham. Your grandmother traditionally may have taken a seat at the piano to play Christmas carols and lead the family singalong. Now, the fact that they're not there to do so can create a void and sadness.

The challenge is honoring their memory without creating a grief-filled tone.

Remember that everyone handles grief differently. And depending on how long it's been since the loss, different family members will be in different stages of their grief process. Some may still be feeling acute sadness and perhaps anger (one of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief), and some may be beyond it, not understanding why others wallow in their sadness. And some relatives may be dramatic in their grief. When you gather many relatives in one place during an emotionally charged time such as the holidays, each person's feelings can be affected by the others.

Given this interplay of strong emotions, your challenge as holiday host (with your own grief simmering within you) is to choose a lovely way to acknowledge and include your departed loved one in the holidays. Here are some ways to do so that can remind your guests to remember the good times with and the talents of your departed loved one:

--Create a family-photo table (like the family-photo tables you see at weddings) by arranging beautifully framed family group photos from holidays past. Include your grandmother doing something she loved, with all of her grandchildren around her, as well as other smiling, happy family photos capturing the festive holiday spirit of togetherness. Group photos convey a lighter tone than a framed, black-banded photo of just the departed loved one, so consider limiting your photo collection to all group photos. "One year, we set up a photo of my mother and asked guests to place white roses by it upon their arrival, but that just made everyone sad," says Renata Deacon. "My sister said that felt like something from a funeral. So we skipped that the next year."

--Include favorite family recipes on your celebration menu. That glazed ham your father sliced can stay on the menu and become a "pass the torch" tradition when you ask your oldest child to take on the ham-slicing task. Next year, another child can do it. A new tradition connected to a cherished menu item creates something uplifting and avoids the sadness of not having ham on the holiday menu at all. That just emphasizes the absence.

--Include your departed loved one's favorite dessert on the menu. It could be your take on her pumpkin pie or your twist on his favorite hot chocolate.

--Have children make a craft inspired by the departed loved one. Marie LeBaron, author of "Make and Takes for Kids: 50 Crafts Throughout the Year," suggests easy crafts like a mug personalized with Sharpie-written messages. Children may be asked to create a mug with pictures, and your mug might include a quote of something your grandmother always said. Display these mugs, and perhaps fill them with cut flowers and holiday greenery to blend memory with cheer.

--Make a great toast. At the start of your holiday meal, choose a brief heartfelt expression about your departed loved one, keeping it to a sentence or two to minimize sadness and sticking to a positive message: "Grandpa would be so happy to see all of us here together, and we know he's smiling down on us all."

If the loss is fresh, talk to your siblings about where their kids are in their grief process, and check in with your parents, as well. Ask them how they'd prefer to honor your loved one's memory. Your little nephew might be having nightmares stemming from the funeral, or your mother might prefer to skip the tribute this year and plan something for next year. Gathering input from all is respectful; so don't get invested in surprising guests with a tribute. During the emotionally charged holiday season, not all surprises turn out well.

What if your tribute causes tears? It may, of course. But like a wedding, tears of great emotion will be dabbed away, hugs will happen, and the celebration will go on.

Keep it simple, sweet, short and sentimental and your departed loved one will be beautifully remembered during your holiday celebration.

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