Finding New Perspective on Holiday Traditions When You’re Grieving

Author: Kim Ruocco

As the holidays approach I am flooded with memories of Christmases filled with laughter, love and special family togetherness. My husband John always took the holidays seriously, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

santa decorated bag

One of my favorite memories is from when the children were little, maybe 3 and 5 years old. We couldn’t get the boys to sleep, and we had a lot of wrapping and toys to put together. John had a Santa suit — because you never know when you’ll need one. He decided to put the suit on and stomp on the roof so I could tell the boys Santa was here and they better get in bed. As I was shooing the boys to their rooms I heard stomp, stomp, stomp and then bang, I glimpsed out the window to see Santa holding on to the gutter of our two-story home in Virginia. I tried to shield the boys as they started screaming and running to their beds. I got them in bed and ran out front to find John in a disheveled state in the bushes. He looked up at me and said, “Did it work?” and I replied, “Yup, get out of the bushes. We have a lot of work to do.”

I miss those days of teamwork, mischief and traditions. When John died, I was left with a huge legacy to continue and the fear that Christmas would never be as special as it once was.

John's absence made it difficult to celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween. For our family, he was a larger-than-life figure that embodied a massive part of our holiday spirit. Moving forward, it was tough to balance incorporating John's memory as we strove to honor old traditions and develop new ones. Family members and friends lent support and enabled us to find a creative balance as we sought to reignite our holiday spirit.

Quite honestly, that first year, I just wanted to cancel it all. I couldn’t imagine facing it without him, and I didn’t have the energy or desire to try. I relied heavily on my family and just went through the motions in a numb state.

The second year, I unpacked the Christmas boxes with the support of my family. Each bulb and each decoration held a cherished memory. It was both painful and cathartic. I got to his stocking. The one his mother knitted. It had his name across the top — John. I looked at it and cried. What would I do with it? How could I use it? I looked at the other stockings pinned across the fireplace — Joey, Billy, Kim.

This was us, our new little family. Where did John belong now? It felt like a pivotal decision. He will always be part of us, but it’s different. I carried the stocking around the room, trying to put it in different spots — the wall, the door. Finally, Joey said, “Put it up with ours, Mom. We will just put different things in it now.”

“Like what?” I asked. And Billy said, “I don’t know. Anything. Notes to him, drawings. It will be a place to remember him.”

I put the stocking next to the rest and this is how it began, the balance of our old life and our new. After 12 years, we seem to have found ways to survive the loss and honor the life. Every family is different, but for us, there are five principles we follow:

1. Incorporate Some Old Traditions

If you have particular rituals or traditions at the holidays, it’s important to keep some of them. When we lose a loved one, we often wonder how the world can keep going on without them. We are tempted to cancel everything because they will not physically be there. Part of moving forward is figuring out how to take them with you. Traditions are one way to do that. One of our traditions was to open one gift on Christmas Eve. We didn’t do that the first year, and the boys missed it. The second year, we started doing it again and it felt good! Another tradition, started by John, was to hide a baby Jesus in the Christmas tree and the boys had to find it before they could open gifts. The boys and I talked about this and they didn’t want to keep it, but every year, on Christmas morning, someone will say, ”Remember when Dad used to make us find baby Jesus?”

2. Make New Traditions

Making new traditions slowly helps us understand that life does keep going and we are going to be OK. Some new traditions come out of necessity. For our family, getting a Christmas tree seemed like an overwhelming task after John’s death. John’s brother Neil and my sister in-law Blair offered to come with us to pick it out and to help us put it up, and I was so grateful for their help. We had so much fun doing it together that it became a tradition that the boys and I looked forward to every year. Another new tradition resolved the long-time struggle over what Christmas lights to put on the tree. John always loved the big colored lights, and I always wanted the small white lights. In memory of John, we bought strings of big colored lights and every year put them on the Douglas Fir in our back yard. Every time I look at that brightly lit tree I think of him and smile.

3. Honor And Remember Your Loved One

There is an empty seat at the table — a sad and painful reminder of what’s been lost. You want to acknowledge it, but you’re not sure if you should. I have found that planning a specific remembrance really helps decrease anxiety and incorporates John into the day. Whether we light a candle, say a prayer, tell a funny story or just say his name out loud, we remember John on special days. And that has been an important part of our healing.

4. Respect Each Other’s Grief Journey

If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that everyone grieves differently and respecting that is a crucial part of rebuilding. Some people may be ready to participate in a remembrance and others may not. The key is to be patient and supportive with each other. I can remember a time when I wanted everyone at the table to tell a funny story about John. A couple people didn’t want to participate. At first, I was insulted and thought they were being selfish. In my mind it was important for my boys to hear these stories and for us to talk about John on this special day. What I discovered was that one person who didn’t participate was afraid he would cry and didn’t want to do that in front of others. Grief is a funny thing, it comes in waves and changes over time. Joining together in acceptance and understanding that each of us is on our own path helps decrease bad feelings and increase bonds with one another.

5. Be Gentle with Yourself

One of the most challenging parts of the holidays after loss is the expectations we put on ourselves. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to recreate the holidays my children had come to love. The pressure I put on myself made me anxious and overwhelmed. I started to see that this anxiety trickling down to everyone in my family. And I realized the people around me just wanted me to be OK. They didn’t expect  a fancy, over-the-top holiday; they were worried about me, and seeing me stressed was causing stress in them. So, I stopped trying to wrap all the presents, and I just put a tag on them. I bought pies instead of making them from scratch. I decided not to send Christmas cards, and I spent that extra time watching “Elf” with my children — over and over again. The laughter we shared while watching that movie in our pajamas, my long list thrown aside, gave me hope that we will be OK.

Suffering a loss is devastating and the approaching holidays can feel overwhelming. Having a plan can ease anxiety and provide a road map for the way forward. There isn't a "right" way to heal. We must each find our rhythm and take one step at a time. In my family's experience, following the five guidelines of incorporating old traditions, making new traditions, honoring and remembering loved ones, respecting each other's grief journey and being gentle to oneself has been a great place to start.

From the pen of…
Kim Ruocco, MSW, is the Vice President of TAPS Suicide Prevention & Postvention, partnering with private and public organizations to decrease suicide and increase postvention care for all those grieving the suicide of a loved one. She is the surviving spouse of Marine Major John Ruocco, who died by suicide in 2005.