This is the first of what I hope to be a series of articles about maintaining family bonds after the death of a loved one. In this article we will talk about maintaining family connectivity after the “glue” is gone. In future articles I hope to speak to facing the challenges of who will take care of mom or dad, passing down the legacy, and what happens when you are now alone.
Imagine this scenario: dad died a couple of years ago and mom went to join him about six months ago. In the six months since mom died, the family has seemingly gone their separate ways. Gatherings that normally would have taken place surrounding her birthday or the birthday of the grandkids have been met with excuses as to why one member of the family or another can’t make it. Thanksgiving is looming on the horizon and whenever you mention it on Facebook, or even on the phone, you are met with a hesitancy that can best be described as evasive. You begin to realize that your mother, the matriarch of the family was the “glue” that held the family together; and now, in her absence, you are finding that family connection that you have cherished so dearly throughout your life is waning away. You find yourself asking “how can we keep the family close when our “glue” is gone?”
This type of scenario happens in more families than you would think. In my own family, the death of my grandmother on my dad’s side resulted in this very effect. Different parts of the family begin to go their own separate ways, starting new traditions and giving up the old, as you long for those connections once again. In the instance of our family, we never really regained the connections we had when she was alive. But, through this process, I have learned some helpful information that I can pass along to each of you.
1. Remember that each member of the family is different. They grieve in different ways and for some of them, they may choose avoidance rather than actually addressing their grief. By avoiding family gatherings there is the perception that you can make it through the holidays without the grief of being reminded that mom and dad are not there. While avoidance works in the short-term, it is important to note that in the long-term the avoidance is merely prolonging or delaying legitimate grief.
2. Directly related to the first item above is the fact that everyone in the family is free to move on as they please. In many instances, mom or grandmother’s age may have been keeping the family close so that they could cherish their last days with her and keep her happy as well. When she is not longer in the picture, many family members may feel free to move on with their lives in a way they have been placing on hold while she was alive. This can mean creating new traditions and new ways of doing holidays.
3. Keep trying. Even though members of the family may have moved on to live their own lives and create their own traditions doesn’t mean that those new traditions can’t involve other members of the family. Extend the invitations. When you have something special, invite the family. Eventually, they may respond positively.
4. Don’t try to do what mom did. There are many times when families try to recreate the holidays of old, when mom was alive and doing the hosting. If you attempt this you will most always fail because something, or someone, is always missing. Try new things. Change things around. What worked for your mother may not work for you and, let’s face it, you just aren’t the hostess she was. Trying to live up to what mom used to do is a recipe for stress and worry which you will never be able to overcome.
5. Remember to make mom a part of what you do. Some families just don’t want to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the memories. As you go through your “uniquely yours” family event it is important that your loved one’s are remembered. Share with the younger generations stories of their grand-parents. Remember times that made you laugh, and even times that made you cry. But don’t dwell on the fact that they are not there.
6. Don’t give up. Return to item 3 above and keep trying. Eventually you may have a whole crowd show up, but right now, enjoy whoever does and remember whoever doesn’t.
Facing the death of a loved one is hard. Facing that grief when the loved one is the last of the former leadership of the family presents its own unique challenges that cannot be dealt with by some cookie-cutter approach. As in all of your grief, remain flexible. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t show up. It isn’t personal. They may simply not be in the place to face the memories of that loved one head on. Honor their choice, but don’t give up on them either. The next time you extend that invitation may be a time that they need it the most.
At Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home we have walked with people through the challenges that they face in the years of grief that can follow the death of a loved one. We offer grief support groups every Thursday evening (except the 5th) at the old Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home on Floyd Street from 6:00-7:30 PM. All of our services are free and open to the public at large regardless of which funeral home or cemetery you used. For more information please call, 770-786-7062, and ask to speak with Dr. Adam Cooper, our Director of Bereavement Services.