Holiday Traditions Post-Tragedy
CEOLC Secretary & Co-Founder | End of Life Midwife | Certified by The Conscious Dying Institute, Denver Hospice
The Christmas after my little sister was murdered was…strange. Kait had been eighteen that July when she died. I was already in my thirties, living in a different state with a husband and two small children. Over the months that followed each of us struggled with how to deal with our shock and grief. I suffered from survivor’s paranoia, gasping at the sound of the doorbell, panicking if a car seemed to be following me too closely, and insisting that every window in our home be reinforced with new locks. I couldn’t imagine traveling back to New Mexico for Christmas—I could barely leave my house. And yet, when Mother decreed that we would all meet as usual at the family home in Albuquerque to observe the holiday, I bought airline tickets.
Like actors, we all tried to mimic our roles in Christmas’s past. Of course, this was a choice. We could have ripped our clothes and torn at our hair, but by some unspoken agreement, we invested in trying to make the holiday what it had always been. And we did a pretty good job of it until Christmas morning when, sitting around the tree for the handing-out-of-gifts ritual, it was impossible not to note the empty spot Kait had assumed from the time she could sit up unassisted. Immediately in front of the tree. So close, she was a part of the decorations, like an over-sized angel that had fallen from a branch. Her absence was testimony to the fact that, for us, Christmas was a ghost of a past we’d never recover. Not just Kait, but Christmas as we’d known it, had died.
We never got together to celebrate Christmas at the family home in Albuquerque again, although we tried various alternative observations. We met at a resort in Florida. My parents came to my tiny house in Dallas, but my siblings did not join us. Gradually, we gave up the holiday all together.
Now, as an end-of-life doula, I wonder if we could have done death better. Of course, there were unique circumstances surrounding Kait’s death, but we still might have found a way to salvage what we could and build something new and beautiful to take the place of the set-in-stone holiday that we lost.
I’ve come to understand that traditions need not be stagnant snapshots of holidays that are passed on from one generation to the next. They can be alive. They can change and grow as situations morph. Exciting new traditions can be folded in with the old to create something that is unique each year… that speaks to the past as well as the present and perhaps the future. Those new traditions honor the strength of the family unit and the memory of those who have passed on.
We might have placed a beautiful candle on the dining table and surrounded it with candles dedicated to each of those we loved who had passed before Kait… a reminder that she wasn’t alone. An ornament with the image of Kait, our angel, could have taken its place on a bough above her spot. Her favorite dish could have joined the traditional fare of roast and mashed potatoes. We could have played the tape of 10-year-old Kait singing with Robin, our oldest sibling (off-key, I admit, but with laughter in her voice and Kait’s always palpable enthusiasm). We might have reordered where we all sat in front of the tree in some meaningful way. Kait had been the youngest of my siblings, so it could have been very meaningful for the youngest members of the next generation to sit closest to the tree, moving back yearly as new, even younger, children were born. My daughters would have been the first to hold down Kait’s spot the year after her death.
That first Christmas after Kait’s death was going to be difficult. No way around it. But the act of doing and growing is a balm. Taking action is taking back control in a world that often feels like it is spinning off its axis. Creating traditions, and observing others that still have meaning, gives us hope that we might, ourselves, be remembered and honored after we pass.
What a gift, had I understood this thirty years ago.
What a gift that I can share it with you now.