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Left Book To Ease Pain of Loss and Traumatic Grief
by Saindon, Connie
Right Book

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Customize Rituals for the Holidays: To Ease Pain of Loss and Traumatic Grief

It is well known among professionals that anniversary dates and holidays, especially the first one, can be difficult for those whose loved one has passed away. When the loss involves an unnatural death, holidays can seem unbearable and insurmountable. Thoughts of merriment may arouse feelings of guilt and disloyalty.

Life is shattered for those who have lost a loved one to a violent death. In her book on the subject, Janoff-Bulman states that three basic assumptions are shattered after traumatic events, they are:

Life has meaning,
The world is safe
I have worth.
These issues add to the burden for traditional days.

Goffman says that rituals are necessary for the management of fears, and for the adaptation to the changes necessary in relationships after death. Rituals serve to acknowledge change without threatening the overall social order. Ceremonies help with adapting to what has happened. Rituals allow one to be emotionally engaged while creating a safe distance to ease the overwhelming pain of loss. Ceremonies work to compartmentalize the review of losses amid holiday reminders. Symbols help replace painful images and memories.

An example of this is when Ann worried about what she would do with the neck and tail of the turkey at Thanksgiving. She stated that her brother, who was a homicide victim this past July, always made a fuss and got the turkey parts every year. This holiday, she ate the tail in honor of her brother. She chuckled about her experience saying: " I don't know what he ever saw in them: they're all fat!" Ann moved from being frozen about what to do, into an activity that honored her brother and gave her an unexpected laugh; something she had been unable to do since his death.

The work of Family Therapists' Evan Imber Black and Janine Roberts, emphasize the importance of rituals for many life events. They recommend setting up a separate activity prior to a holiday to acknowledge their loved one. An example would be setting aside a special night and inviting friends or family to bring favorite foods for an informal gathering.

This special time could also be a time when photos are gathered to begin a memory album. This album could be worked on annually, with more photos and stories collected each year. An example is an album created by my family to help remember our sister who was a murder victim in 1961. Many different times were set up to do the album. Copies were made of photos and returned to their owner. Each family member selected photos and stories for their page. Our family continues to get more photos and stories to add to our album. The album dedication says, "to our loving sister and daughter who lives on in all of us."

Not doing a special and separate activity tends to burden stressful holidays even more. Hoping to slip past such events without overwhelming reminders is not wise. A special time before the holiday can both honor the memory and mark the loss of your loved one. This frequently reduces the strain of the actual holiday.

It is important that rituals and ceremonies be customized. When one has lost an infant, doing an album may not work, as there may be few photos and stories. One father whose young son was murdered has a ritual whereby he goes to a country store and buys his mother a new "snowbaby" ornament that she started collecting in honor of her grandson. Another father who states "heroin murdered my son" sings songs at benefits from the CD that his son helped him write.

A new and quite spontaneous evening developed last year after the first of our projects' support groups had ended. Realizing that the groups ended early in December, and participants had the holidays to face, we informally asked folks to gather one evening in the middle of December and bring an ornament. We asked that this ornament be symbolic of their loved one, which they could hang on the holiday tree (a tree that is always put up in the waiting room). Anyone with whom we had a chance to talk during that brief time who had suffered a loss or had worked on the project was invited to attend and encouraged to bring more family and friends. We had a room full people who shared songs, inspirationals and ornaments, hung one-by-one. So this year we will create a similar, but different evening, for this now annual event.

To develop your own rituals, consider some of the following ideas. Talk about your rituals with others who suffer similar losses. Your rituals will give others ideas when their thinking is blocked due to SUGS -- sudden upsurges of grief (our term based on the work of Theresa Rando). SUGS usually result in temporary confusion that participants call "brain mush" when reminders flood them with pain.

Activities can include the telling of stories around a fireplace, or bonfire; going to the burial site and praying, chanting, singing, serving the needy, making charitable contributions, doing a difficult feat such as a hike, balloon rides, or a surfboard paddleout. Items to use for rituals could be candles, rosemary (for remembrance), seeds, sand, feathers, balloons, crayons, rocks, ribbon, music, stars, irises (for hope) and more. It is important to remember that although these ideas may help to ease the pain of this loss, nothing will bring the loved one back or erase all the images of how they died. There's no "getting over it," but this may be one more step in your journey.

Both public and private professionals need rituals to deal with the impact of trauma and loss that they encounter, too. Avoiding these rituals can lead to feelings that accumulate, and may become displaced on others. They may also jeopardize one's health. Your ritual can be a group or personal event customized for your needs


Figley, C., McCubbin, H., 1983. Coping with catastrophe, stress and the family Volume 11. Bruner/Mazel, Publishers, Inc., New York.

Goffman, E., 1971. Relations in public. New York: Harper and Row.

Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J., 1992. Rituals for our times. New York: Harper Collins

Janoff-Bulman, R., 1992. Shattered assumptions, toward a new psychology of trauma, The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc. New York.

Johnson, D., Feldman, S., Lubin, H., Southwick, S., 1995. The therapeutic use of ritual and ceremony in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 8, No.2.

Rando, T., 1993. Treatment of complicated mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Scheff, T., 1979. Catharsis in healing, ritual and drama. Berkeley, CA University of California Press.

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Additional Information

Connie Saindon, M.A., MFT, CTS is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Trauma Specialist. She serves on the board of the local chapter of the Association for Traumatic Stress Specialists and is a Continuing Education provider. She is a volunteer with the San Diego Police Departments' Crisis Intervention Team and their Sexual Assault Prevention Program. She is a trained Disaster Mental Health Responder with the Red Cross and is Certified to conduct Debriefings. She has been appointed chair of the Community Response Committee for the California Division of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. To contact her for services and consultation, She can be reached at 7850 Mission Center Court, Suite 208, San Diego, CA 92108. Her phone number is (619)295-8595 FAX 619-295-8696

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