Rituals to Cope During the Holidays

Families cope during the holidays with rituals such as making a special ornament, signing a memorial in holiday cards to the child who died, lighting candles, tree plantings, and kindness can help transform the experience of loss and sadness for some.

Read an excerpt from Drs. Joanne Cacciatore & Melissa Flint in the Journal of Loss & Trauma:

While the more traditional rituals were often discussed in the stories of participants, many more of the participants engaged in new, less traditional rituals. Overall, nontraditional rituals were mentioned more than 50 times and included creative acts of memorialization such as ‘‘Build-A-Bears,’’ scrapbooks, memorial Web sites, commemorative jewelry, auto window stickers, personalized Christmas cards and ornaments, balloon releases, volunteering and participating in random acts of kindness, and tattoos. Parents in this study reflected on the importance of helping others in a multitude of different ways that may not, at first glance, seem like an actual ritual. For example, attending a support group felt, to some, like a ritualistic act that benefited them at first. However, as time passed attended groups became a way to ‘‘give back’’ to other families who were suffering the same loss as they had (n.12). The use of their personal stories to help other families and, ultimately, to give them ‘‘hope’’ was a recurrent theme. Additionally, other families engaged in acts of altruism, including purchasing gifts on holidays for a less fortunate child. One mother shared, ‘‘After I do an act of kindness, I feel closer to him and a sense of relief from the intensity of the grief [that] comes over me.”

Every participant in the study stated that rituals were profoundly important to them, reducible into three main categories represented as (a) continued bonds with the child who died, (b) coping, and (c) honoring and memorializing. Despite the importance of ritual in the lived experiences of the participants, there were some perceived negative aspects related to the responses of others. While two respondents stated that they did not experience discouraging feedback, most of the others in the sample conveyed less than supportive responses, often from family members. In total, there were 51 disaffirming responses, such as the suggestion that parents should just ‘‘move on’’ and assertions that ‘‘a mother was no longer a mother if her only child had died.’’ While some participants interpreted these negative comments as intentionally hurtful, intended to interrupt their mourning rituals, others felt more empathy: ‘‘They didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing.’’ Additionally, for some the omission of acknowledgment appeared equally as hurtful as suggestions they stop acknowledging the child after an arbitrary period of time (usually following the first holiday or first birthday). ‘‘They don’t know if they should or shouldn’t talk about it. The fact that people don’t know what to do or worse suggest I shouldn’t feel pain or grief.’’ This did seem to affect many parents’ level of comfort around ongoing rituals and may be why some became more private. Parents who experienced perinatal death reported more ‘‘unsupportive’’ responses from others.

Cacciatore, J. & Flint, M. (2012).  Mediating Grief: Postmortem ritualization after child death. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 17:158-172.