When We Use Our Personal Stories To Create Holiday Traditions, The Loss Of A Loved One Becomes A Part Of The True Meaning Of The Season

Holiday time is all about planning. We plan our trips to see loved ones, we plan our wish lists and our shopping lists. There is a plan for how and when to get the tree, or to get the decorations down from the attic and put them in their pre-assigned places. 

The radio stations play the most predictable music of the year, and the color palette of every store, every party and social gathering is basically the same hues. 

But for many of us, the Holidays include the un-expected, and the tragic. Scientific studies have even shown that there is a rise in deaths during Christmas and New Years, though scientists have not been able to explain why.

Since much of the holiday traditions we enjoy tend to operate on a sort of auto-pilot, most of us aren’t prepared for how to reconcile our experience of the holidays with our grieving over the death of a loved one.

We may even feel guilty when trying to enjoy the spirit of the holidays if there has been a death of a family member or close friend during this time of year. 

Even though the experience is common, there is little discussion about how to deal with this loss of equilibrium.

Holiday traditions and rituals all began somewhere, some are very old, and some originated within the timeframe of our own personal memories. No matter where these traditions started, their origins had to do with real people, and those people’s real life stories. 

In many cases, holiday traditions we now find simple and even trite were complex and fraught with human struggle at their inception.

The biblical Christmas story begins with the mother Mary’s fear at her miraculous pregnancy and culminates with the naked, vulnerability of the infant Christ Child.

The Christmas card was invented when a harried, overworked businessman found himself unable to muster the energy to write the customary, expected, personal Christmas letter. Unable to get his act together, he hired someone to create a stock Christmas letter that would suffice for his lack of personally addressed prose, and the idea spread from there. 

As our lives unfold, so do our personal and family histories. Holiday traditions offer us a chance to tell our own stories, our memories of joy, and our history of loss. We can infuse our genuine feelings of sadness into our existing traditions as a way of acknowledging and honoring our grief.

An example of this may be including a meaningful song that reminds of us of our loved one and not feeling bad about playing it alongside the customary Holiday playlist.  

But we can also build new traditions for the holidays, ones that honor our missing loved ones.

We might create a special dish at the holiday table, one that the person who died used to make regularly, or was their favorite to eat. We might take some time one day a week, or daily at meals during the holiday season to light a candle in honor of those who are no longer with us. Or we could take a portion of our holiday spending and give to a charity that in some way honors what our loved one was passionate about in their lifetime. 

These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking about how to incorporate your feelings of  sadness into a time a year that rarely makes space for it. The idea is to be empowered to make the holidays about your family’s story, and use the traditions you practice to honor that story. We also encourage you to make entirely new ones.

Remember that without sorrow, there can be no joy, without loss there can be no appreciation of all that we are given. This is not to diminish the pain and suffering of losing a loved one, but rather to help incorporate those experiences of pain and loss into the true meaning of the holidays. 

The holidays are a time to be deeply human, and to embrace all that makes us so. For us northerners, it is a time when darkness grows to its fullest point of the whole year, before it gives way to the light. This process of darkness to light continues year after year, cycling as birth and death. 

If we allow ourselves to feel sadness at this time of year, we will be tapping into true stories of countless who have gone before us, and through acceptance, we can find our way, time and again, back to joy.

Raising Women

Yesterday, Cokie Roberts died. My afternoon commute was peppered with women’s voices remembering their friend and mentor for her role in their lives and in the history of journalism. Clips played of her strong, defiant voice, challenging the legacy of patriarchy and the way women’s contribution to a news story were discussed and recorded. Her leadership in the industry was apparent by the number of women in positions of prominence who said she helped pave the way. In each recollection of her significance, the speaker endeavored to explain the most distinctive aspect of her leadership, her kindness. Strong and opinionated, she conducted herself with an unfaltering commitment to decency and manners in a city of cutthroat ambition almost bordering on barbarism. Her specific mix of authority and consideration of others was all too rare. This is especially in the world of politics, where the most visible women are either laughing stocks (think Sarah Palin or Elizabeth Warren) or singular targets of vitriol (Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelozi and Kamala Haris).

It all got me thinking about my daughter, about all our daughters, and what we are raising them to be in this world. For certain we need more women as CEOs, more women in houses of government, more women’s voices on the news. We need women leaders in emerging fields of science and technology, where the future and it’s implicit biases are being researched and invented. But more important than what our daughters become, is who they become. If we aren’t focusing on building up their strength of character, their ability to consider others, and their commitment to kindness, than what is the point of having women replace men at their half of the table? What our world lacks is not simply women, but compassion and perspective. In a culture where power is equated to the number of losers in your wake (just look at our presidency), are we raising a generation of girls to serve these same gods of ruthless ambition?

We need to not only encourage young women to speak out and step up, we must warn the next generation what is at stake if they sacrifice their integrity while climbing the professional ladder. There exists no world where a woman (or a certain race, or people of sexual orientation or whatever) is a better choice for a position simply because of her gender. We should be instilling in our children judgement based on Dr. King’s “content of their character.” We should be spreading the message that our everyday choices matter enduringly. It’s in a world where women and men, and everything in between, value kindness, that I’d like to set my daughter up for success.

The Scary Beginning

We all know the feeling of beginning something, the rush of nerves, or the uncontrollable excitement. There are new beginnings that happen in rhythm, the beginning of a new day, the beginning of summer, the start of a new fiscal year, or a new school year. There are beginnings we launch into with intention, a new job, a product launch, a fresh workout class, welcoming a baby, But then there are beginnings that creep up on us, without a rush of adrenaline or even a moment to prepare. Sometimes we find ourselves at the beginning of a journey we didn’t choose, like unemployment, a market crash, a breakup, a new body pain that won’t go away, life after the death of a loved one. It’s just as we relax into a sense of routine and familiar patterns that some new affair pulls us off course. Like a ferris wheel bench that comes behind and hits our knees before we are ready, we fall into an awkward position as something we haven’t felt before, carries us upwards. 

Perhaps what is most scary about beginnings is the possibility that we won’t get past them, that failure will overcome us and we will lose this chance to become something new. Like training a new puppy where every opportunity, whether seized or missed, sets the course for what type dog he will become, the beginning of something requires focus. Our attention can’t be elsewhere, we have to commit to caring about the outcome.

A friend of mine recently started her own business. In looking over her website I was struck by the polish of the design, juxtaposed with empty spaces inside. Pages with intentional titles were followed by Lorem ipsum dolor sit ame. This is similar to much of our lives. The design may be flawless, or at least polished enough to get by. The titles of our internal pages are the categories of our care, kids, work, finances, parents, hobby… But how many of those internal places are fully written? How often do we open the books on our mind’s shelves and read the deepest desires we have stored there? How many blanks spaces are left unnoticed? How much chaos uncleared? How many times have we begun at this and turned the light off, to begin something else instead? Maybe the next beginning we choose could be to go back and finish what we started.