This past Thanksgiving was our family’s fifth without my mother-in-law, ninth without two sisters and a brother, and sixteenth without my grandmother. We felt the ache, mourned the loss, and wished with all our hearts they were still with us.
The holidays are coming and with it a slew of family gatherings. Unless you’ve been unusually fortunate, you’ll have an empty chair or two at your dining room table. It’s unrealistic to think you won’t miss your loved ones, but holidays are for celebrating, not for grieving. As you prepare for the holidays without your precious loved ones, here are a few ways you can honor them.
1. Do something your loved one would approve of.
My grandmother loved to dig in the dirt and make things grow. Wherever she lived, she always planted dianthus. I remember visiting her shortly after she moved to an independent living facility. She no longer had a place to garden, but as I walked into her new building, I saw evidence of her green thumb. She’d tucked a tiny patch of dianthus into a square of dirt near her doorway. To honor her, I planted dianthus in my flowerbed. Every time it bloomed, it reminded me of her.
One friend and his family are faced their first Christmas without their father/grandfather. Knowing that his dad loved Italy, my friend took his family on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome in his honor.
Your memorial activity will probably be less extravagant, but it can be equally memorable. One friend honors her daughter’s memory every season by watching her favorite Christmas movie, the Patrick Stewart version of “A Christmas Carol.” Another friend and her family meet at Waffle House at midnight on Christmas Eve to continue a long-standing tradition their late father began.
2. Include your loved one’s favorite food in your holiday meal.
My mother-in-law and I shared a love for lemon crème pie. She’d often tell the story of how she and a friend of hers liked it so much that they’d buy a pie, draw a line down the middle, and eat every bit of it. My mother-in-law liked her pies extra tart, and if I made the recipe just right, she’d nod her approval. “Mmm,” she’d say, “that’ll lock yer jaws.”
Lemon crème pie was one of the last foods I fed her before she passed away. Confined to a hospital bed and pumped full of medicine, she hadn’t eaten much in days. We wracked our brains trying to think of foods that might stimulate her appetite. My brother-in-law brought her a hot dog from her favorite greasy spoon. I brought a bowl of juicy watermelon. The day I brought her a slice of lemon crème pie, however, was a day to remember.
“Good?” I asked as I spooned bites into her eager mouth.
“Mmm,” she said, nodding her approval. “That’ll lock yer jaws.”
I ate a piece of lemon crème pie at Thanksgiving in her honor. It wasn’t quite tart enough, but I think she’d still approve.
Like eating my mother-in-law’s lemon pie, “sharing” our loved one’s favorite foods helps us feel connected with them. This Christmas we’ll eat sweet potato casserole to honor my sister Cindy and deep-fried turkey in my brother-in-law Luther’s name. And with every bite of lemon pie, I’ll feel my mother-in-law’s smile.
3. Talk about your loved one, shed a few tears, but don’t let grief steal the joy from your family celebration.
Remember that the greatest way we can honor a loved one who has passed away is to live every day in thanksgiving and joy. Reflect on the happy memories. Talk about the fun times and shared experiences. Thank God for the time you had rather than mourning the time you’ve lost.
4. Donate to an organization, charity, or cause your loved one felt passionate about.
If your mother had a soft spot for children, sponsor a child in her name. If your father loved baseball, donate a scholarship to a local league to help a child in need play ball next spring. If your aunt had a soft spot for animals, give to a nearby no-kill shelter.
Remember, too, that donations of time are infinitely valuable and honoring to a departed loved one. One friend helps serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter in memory of her father. Another fills a two-hour slot as a Salvation Army bell-ringer.
See also: 10 Reasons you should Volunteer to Ring a Bell this Christmas
Holidays can be hard, but with God’s grace and a little intentionality, we can celebrate in ways that honor and include our loved ones, even when they are no longer with us. If you’re facing the holidays without someone special, ask the Lord to wrap you in his love and help you feel the joy of his presence. Take comfort in the promise of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
by Lori Hatcher, originally appeared in the War Cry.