Creating New Traditions in the Light of Loss

Debbie Reslock

By Debbie Reslock | Dec 4th, 2017

Surviving the holidays when grieving

One of the inescapable truths about growing older is that we’ll become more familiar with loss. What we may have escaped when we were younger, if we were very, very lucky, will catch up to most of us as time goes on. It’s the inevitable circle of life. But as difficult as losing a loved one can be, grieving at this time of year can be even harder to endure.

During the holidays, you may find yourself standing all alone in the midst of others’ celebrations. Or struggling with familiar traditions that once brought such joy. When someone we love is gone and our grief is raw, these constant reflections on happier times can amplify the sadness we feel.

One way to approach the season is to simply stop and ask yourself what you can handle. Some customs may be comforting but there may be others that are just too painful to carry out. Having an honest discussion with yourself and your family can go a long way in helping you make it through the holidays.

Accepting change

“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on,” physician and writer Henry Havelock Ellis once said. As baby boomers, most of us have gotten better through the years at life’s juggling act. But when you’re face-to-face with both the holidays and grief, what traditions to keep and what to let go are not easy questions to answer.


Accepting that we can’t recreate the same feelings and emotions from years past, no matter how hard we might try isn’t easy. But if you find there are customs you can’t face this year, it might help to create new ones that gently acknowledge your loss and honor the memory of your loved one.

Here are a few suggestions to use as a starting point. Yet keep in mind each family is different and what might work best for one wouldn’t for another. Also, remember that a commitment isn’t required. Next year you may feel differently or even want to reintroduce a custom that you find you missed.

10 holiday traditions to help cope with grief

  1. If you always stayed home for the holidays, consider taking a trip. For some, the logistics required to make travel arrangements, pack and explore a new area is a welcome distraction from facing an empty chair where you all gathered every year.
  2. If you do decide to remain at home, change your routine. If the day was always spent preparing a big dinner or sitting by the fire exchanging gifts or stories, try dining out, going to a movie or finding another activity that will give your mind even a small break.
  3. Volunteer to make someone else’s holiday brighter. Focusing on others has a natural way of lessening our own pain, if only for that day. Find a place where you or your family can help serve a meal, visit the elderly or provide gifts and food for an adopt-a-family program.
  4. Create a memory box and set aside a special time so all who would like can share a poem, a letter they’ve written or a favorite photo.
  5. Invite everyone to make a holiday toast and talk about a special memory – what they admired most, a funny story or the one trait they’ll never forget about your loved one.
  6. Light a candle privately every evening and say a silent prayer, recite a poem or tell them how much you miss them and how you’re trying to get through the holidays.
  7. Play their favorite music or song during dinner and ask everyone to bring a much-loved dish if you’re sharing a meal.
  8. Make a donation. Choose a charity or cause that was meaningful to them and donate money or time in their name. If you always bought them a special gift, or if you see one that they would have loved, make the purchase and donate to an organization that distributes presents.
  9. Take part in an activity they enjoyed. Meet at their favorite restaurant for a meal or drinks with family and friends. Go to a concert if they were music enthusiasts. Or if outdoors was always their first choice, plan for a day of skiing, hiking or a walk in the park.
  10. If the thought of an empty space is too much to bear, consider inviting someone who is alone or also struggling to share the day with your family.

Finding our anchor in the absence

Traditions and customs are important in our lives and they’ve also been found to help us cope with loss. A Harvard Business School study found that mourners who performed rituals were able to overcome their grief more quickly. These were private or personal practices that went beyond the public customs typically observed when a loss has occurred. Rituals, it was discovered, helped restore a sense of control when the feeling of losing a loved one is often chaos.

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Someone told me once that when we’re grieving we live in a perpetual presence of absence. Our thoughts are focused on who or what is no longer there. We may feel we can’t let go of the old way of doing things, even if painful, because we’ve already lost so much. But sometimes creating new ways to remember and pay tribute can help even more.

When we’re struggling to regain our footing, we gravitate to what can anchor us. Traditions, old or new, don’t have the power to bring happiness to our holidays, but they can once again tether us to our family and friends and provide respite in our grief. And if we can find a way to recognize our loss and reflect on what we need, even if only to help us take another step forward, that is much to be grateful for this season.

Debbie Reslock

Debbie Reslock

Debbie Reslock writes about and for the baby boomer and 55+ market, including the amazing journey of aging itself. Her blog, The Third Act, can be found at


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