Creating holiday harmony after the loss of a loved one

It's the first holiday season after the loss of a loved one, and you want to honor them with a place setting at the table. But not everyone is on board with your plan. How can you keep a family member's memory alive without causing a family rift?

"Grief is a very individual process," said licensed clinical social worker Kathleen Cullen-Conway. "Many families have rich traditions and rituals they've done through the years, but people are in emotional pain, particularly in that first year."

Cullen-Conway, who is also a bereavement counselor for Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care out of their Mount Prospect headquarters, said it's important to communicate and compromise with your family members as much as possible when approaching a big holiday celebration.

"One family I was working with had a child who died, and the kids wanted to put presents under the tree, but the mom thought just having a tree would be too difficult," she said. "So they moved the tree to a different place in the house. It's in the dining room, and now the kids can still enjoy the tree, and the mom doesn't see it as often, which is helpful for her grief. There is no right or wrong way, but trying to acknowledge everyone's concerns and work around that so everyone feels heard is most important."

Here are Cullen-Conway's tips to keeping your loved one alive in your hearts for the holidays without creating additional family stress:

Create new traditions. "If you've cooked a big dinner every year, consider making reservations at a restaurant, and then having dessert at home," she said. "This way, you don't have the stress of preparing a big meal, but can still have the intimacy of being together in your living room if that is comforting."

Give yourself a break. "You don't have to do the holiday cards, or go do your Christmas shopping if you're in emotional pain," she said. "Shop online if the music in the stores is too painful. Or better yet, pamper yourself. Spend that money and time getting a massage. Your family will understand."

Be flexible. "Have a plan A and a plan B for the big holiday celebrations, and do whichever one you feel like doing on that day," she said. "Tell your family ahead of time that you have two plans in place, and don't feel bad if others put pressure on you to be somewhere. You have to honor where you are in the grief process."

Offer to help. "If you see someone really struggling with a loss, stop by with some food," she said. "Offer to run errands or do some of their holiday shopping. It's better to offer and have them say, 'No thanks,' than to have them sitting in need afraid to ask for help."

Find a unique way to remember those you love. Cullen-Conway suggests lighting a candle, or setting out their picture as a way of keeping their memory in your celebration. She also encourages people to tell stories during a toast, or to make a donation in their loved one's name. Even writing their name on a balloon and sending it off can be healing.

"I'm working with a family and there are two boys, ages 2 and 4," she said. "The father passed away and he was a big wearer of baseball caps, so the family decided to put one of his favorite baseball caps on top of the tree in a way to make him part of the family celebration. The goal is that the person is carried in your heart in some way. The relationship doesn't end when they pass on."

Twitter: @jenweigel

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