Homemade Holidays for Remembering

The tradition of honoring the departed with rituals and sweets exists in almost every culture.

In Mexico, there is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in conjunction with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, when prayers and offerings are made to the deceased, and families gather to remember and reconnect with those who have passed on before them.

Halloween, occurring the day before Día de los Muertos, has been combined with the Mexican holiday in certain places, but often fails to focus on the departed while it emphasizes the paranormal (zombies are so in this year). This is not to say that Día de los Muertos doesn’t have its share of the macabre—paintings of dancing skeletons and skulls made of sugar abound! However, this is a befriending and sweetening of death, an acceptance that loss is a part of life and not something to be avoided with anti-aging creams and plastic surgery.

Other U.S. holidays that may have been somber in origin, such as Memorial Day or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, similarly do not remind us of those we have lost or our own mortality, but are usually considered a day to take time off from work.

In the general absence of mourning rituals and holidays that connect all Americans, we may create rituals that gather us together as families and friends, to share memories sad, funny, and poignant, while we share that universal and life-affirming glue, food.

Which days work best for these remembrances? Lacking a national, synchronized holiday, we have personal choices to make. Will it be the anniversary of her death? Or will it be his birthday? How about her favorite holiday? Then again, there are holidays that may take on different meanings, such as Mother’s or Father’s Day.

Sometimes families, friends, and couples will come to a joint decision about the day. Other times, it’s a private, individual celebration. The choices and reasons are many, and what can be a good guide in all of this flexibility is how one feels about a certain day. Memorializing the anniversary of a death may feel right for the first year, and shifting to a birthday afterwards may signify a shift in emphasis from loss and yearning to integration and fond remembrance.

As America is a patchwork quilt of various cultures, this will factor into how one remembers, too. In some cultures, birthdays do not have particular importance, and it will feel more appropriate to remember someone by the day he died, and to notice how feelings and thoughts change from pain to peace over time on this anniversary.

Rituals are similarly created, based on how people would like to reconnect emotionally with the departed. For the Chinese, ancestors are remembered on major holidays with food connected to those holidays (think Thanksgiving turkey, Hanukkah latkes, or Easter ham). It would be just as normal—and satisfying—for Americans to make a favorite dessert, cook a favorite dish, or toast with a favorite drink to honor the memory of someone whom they have lost.

Additionally, having activities can help soothe grief or focus on the continuity of life. Setting aside a plate of food, taking time off of work, sharing funny stories, or telling a picture “We love you and we miss you,” are simple and powerful ways to connect emotionally with the departed, and integrate them into our lives.

The use of special days and rituals can be a great comfort to us. It’s not always about the farewell; sometimes it’s about finding another way to say hello.

Related Articles:
Ancestor Healing Work in a Season of Change
Good Grief: Helping Children and Teens Deal with Loss

© Copyright 2011 by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • JaCoB

    JaCoB

    November 1st, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    My father always loved to do something for underprivileged kids and whenever I have the chance I do the same in his remembrance.that is my way of remembering and connecting with him.he always used to say doing so gives him peace of mind.and as I can see it now,it sure does.in addition to that I feel a sense of connecting with my beloved father.There is nothing more I can ask for.it need not be his birthday,it could be any normal day and helping a child always makes me feel like he is watching me from up there and is quite proud of what his son is doing.

  • Kerry M. Gasson, CT

    Kerry M. Gasson, CT

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:48 AM

    I really enjoyed your post, especially your last thought that it is not always about ‘farewell’ rather about finding a different way to say ‘hello.’ That is so true!

    I have been asked to lead a group at my church on grieving through the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s). They want me to provide an overview of grief (possibly normalizing different people’s grieving styles) and then talk about specific ways to cope with all of the holiday cheer/hustle and bustle/and of course memories of their lost loved ones during this time. Would you happen to have any suggestions or advice or resources you could point me to? I haven’t studied grief work yet and from the little I have read thus far, it seems like current researchers are moving away from the old Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Thank you!!!

  • Anni Rasmussen

    Anni Rasmussen

    November 1st, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    I also enjoyed your post and I haven’t worked directly with grieving clients however I have lost both my parents somewhat prematurely. I can relate to what Jacob is saying about remembering the loved ones by carrying on doing something they liked to do. In this way, I dedicate many of my everyday and Holiday activities to my mom. My father has influenced me more intellectually and frequently I think of him when I’m researching or discussing things. Some of the things that I hold particularly dear are the writings or narratives that they have produced; like childhood experiences, love letters between my parents, my mom’s best recipes and so forth.
    I think a compilation of little narratives, handy tips, recipes, whether they have been written by the deceased or by us who remember, is a good way to remember them. Appropriately used, it could be a great way to come together, celebrate the ones who are gone and share our memories of them. It can be word only but better if actually made into a little scrapbook.

  • janey

    janey

    November 1st, 2011 at 5:18 PM

    “The use of special days and rituals can be a great comfort to us. It’s not always about the farewell; sometimes it’s about finding another way to say hello.” What a great thing for all of us to consider!

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:08 PM

    Dear JaCoB,

    Thank you so much for sharing how you remember your father! I’m glad you found such a wonderful way to stay connected with him.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    Hi Kerry!

    Thanks for reading and for your questions.

    I want to acknowledge that the part about saying hello again was partially inspired by Michael Whyte’s essay, “Saying Hullo Again,” which was a Narrative Therapy approach towards grief. I don’t discuss Narrative ways of memorializing in my article, but I do like the idea of reconnecting (saying hello again) with those who have died.

    For an overview of grief, I would suggest reading the landing page of the Grief, Loss, and Bereavement section here at GoodTherapy.org:

    https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-grief.html

    The two main grieving styles (which people mix) are “instrumental” and “intuitive.” They used to be described as “masculine” and “feminine,” but the non-gendered terms are less stigmatizing and more accurately descriptive.

    Instrumental grieving tends to be doing physical things, intuitive tends to be expressing feelings. They are gender-related but not gender-specific, which means that men may usually be instrumental, but women can be, too. Same thing goes for women leaning towards intuitive grieving, but that style not being exclusive to women.

    When facilitating a grief group, it’s important to consider how to include different kinds of grievers. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s share our feelings about our loved ones,” a facilitator might say, “Let’s share stories about our loved ones.”

    When people get a handle on the grieving styles, it often allows them to feel normal and to accept the normality of other people’s grieving.

    There are also various ways to cope with the holidays:

    *Check in with ourselves and our family and/or partner about how to proceed with the holidays, to reduce stress.

    *We may not celebrate a holiday at all, or celebrate it in a subdued way, or not visit others during the holidays.

    *Preparing mentally and emotionally for the holidays can decrease the pain of grief; don’t let the holidays, including anniversaries, “sneak up” or be ignored until the day hits.

    *Creating rituals of remembrance during the holidays can also help to ease grief and give us more sense of control regarding our feelings and what to do.

    *Letting others know that the holidays are difficult and what our needs are (privacy or a get-together; not putting up a tree for Christmas or having Thanksgiving dinner at our house).

    *Attend memorial events at hospices, churches, temples, community centers, etc. that allow us to remember the departed with others who understand grief, and that the holidays can be difficult.

    *Cocooning from the hustle and bustle may also be useful; being in the hustle and bustle may be useful. Again, checking in with ourselves, or testing how we might feel in different situations, might help us see what might be beneficial or painful.

    I would recommend reading Dr. George Bonanno’s work on bereavement, The Other Side of Sadness.

    Also, the work done by Dr. Kenneth Doka, he’s also a Lutheran minister.

    For faith-based grief counseling, I know of GriefShare dot org that appears to work well with some grievers, and can be used in conjunction with secular grief counseling.

    I hope this helps! It’s a lot of information, and if you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me. It might also be a good idea to ask for suggestions from bereaved people in your congregation about what they’d like to discuss.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    Hello Anni,

    That’s very insightful! We often forget that people become a part of us, even if they are not physically present, and that remembering them in our daily or holiday activities is a great way to stay connected and to feel their legacy alive in us.

    The idea of scrapbooking or collecting the words and other things left behind by those who have died is a wonderful touchstone. I know of quite a few families who have collected recipes from each generation, and it’s a comfort to make “Great Grandma’s Super Delicious Carrot Cake” or “Dad’s Kick Ass Barbecue Sauce.”

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    Hey Janey,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s definitely something worth remembering, that we are connected on several levels with someone, and that some of those connections persist even in the face of death.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Daniel Bolton

    Daniel Bolton

    November 5th, 2011 at 2:55 AM

    Great read Ivan! I always wonder whether it is the fact that the U.S. has such a mix of cultures that we don’t have an integrated ritual to honor the dead or whether it is the U.S. culture to deny bad things and bad feelings like those around death. Disney may be a relevant example: Disney took many of the Grimm’s fairy tales, often dark and dealing with difficult human emotions like possessiveness (the Dwarves in Snow White were not quite as altruistic as Disney made them out to be). I’ve always wondered about discerning between these two things

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    November 8th, 2011 at 12:05 AM

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment!

    It’s a curious thing to wonder why the U.S. doesn’t have a more integrated ritual/day to honor the dead.

    The United States was literally designed to be unified yet individual, and we do have certain things that connect all of us, recent and not-so-recent immigrants alike, but I think there’s a dominant, mainstream American discomfort with death and dying that’s only nibbled at by the various cultures (which are more comfortable with death and dying) that comprise the whole.

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