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After The Loss Of A Loved One, Your Holiday Traditions Change But Hope Endures

Grief can be amplified this time of year, whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Honoring the memory of late family members helps many NPR listeners and readers process their heartache.
Richard Beebe cherishes this quilt in memory of his wife, Eileen. Source: Courtesy of Richard Beebe

What was once a lavish production for Ma'Ko'Quah and Christopher Jones has evolved into a humble, close-knit Christmas.

"We had two little girls and looked forward to spoiling them at Christmastime," Ma'Ko'Quah Jones says. "We took them to get Santa pictures every holiday, went and looked at Christmas lights, and shopped the blockbuster deals after Thanksgiving."

All of those cherished rituals shifted in 2008. That September, Ma'Ko'Quah Jones and her husband lost their third child and first son, 8-month-old Osceola Jones, to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

"After Osceola died, we felt guilty for wanting to be happy during the holidays, and so we refrained from celebrating for about three years," Ma'Ko'Quah Jones of Kansas says.

Holidays in particular can compound grief over the death of a loved one. "In our society, it's supposed to be 'the most wonderful time of the year,' " says Catharine MacLaren, a clinical social worker who directs a private mental health practice in Maine. "There is an expectation on some level, whether it's self-imposed or other-imposed, that we're joyous and excited and spending time with people."

Those expectations can amplify the grief. And not everyone processes grief linearly through the five emotional stages neatly outlined in the Kübler-Ross model. In reality, MacLaren says, coping behaviors that may work for some may not work for others. In other words, there's no "right" or "normal" way to move on from trauma.

But the trappings of holiday tradition should not prevent people from doing what they believe will be helpful and healthy for them, MacLaren says. Her patients cope best, she says, "when they've been really honest with themselves, and they've given themselves permission to feel sad, if that happens or

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