Changing family traditions

Change happens — sometimes in ways that interfere with treasured rituals.

Holiday family meal

Traditions are important, especially around holidays. They create memories and rituals that live on from generation to generation. Family traditions become the “it’s always been done this way” occasions — everyone knows what will happen, when it will occur, who will do what — revolving around a religious activity, feast, family outing or community event.

What happens to traditions when there’s a death or illness or some other significant change?

Unfortunately, “life” happens without warning. Grandma breaks her hip a week before Thanksgiving, and she’s always made the homemade stuffing. Family members relocate out-of-state and no longer attend the holiday gatherings. Uncle Bob’s dementia has taken away his best-kept-secret ice-fishing location on the lake.

Change happens — sometimes in ways that interfere with treasured rituals.

But it’s OK for traditions to change.

Whenever change meets tradition, there can be confusion, loss of roles, hurt feelings and uneasiness about how to adapt without the people who have always been present.

Adjusting to different family traditions can also cause stress and worry. However, naming the changes and involving others in contributing new ideas can actually help the entire family creatively adapt traditions that will work for everyone.

Honor the past

During the first holidays after someone has died, consider maintaining the lost loved one’s traditions in some way. Invite other family members to step up and share the honor by taking over the role of the deceased.

After a death, the sadness people feel can lead to avoiding all references to the person and their role in family rituals. But it’s important to continue to share the good memories and past stories during family gatherings to help everyone grieve and process the loss. This time also allows discussion of what aspects of the tradition are important and why. Hearing everyone’s perspective will help define what the new family tradition might look like.

Here are some tips for moving things in a positive direction:

  • PLAN AHEAD. It’s important to identify change when it occurs. If Aunt Rita passes away in the spring, begin to discuss who will take over her never-to-miss New Year’s soup. The more lead time there is, the more time people have to prepare themselves emotionally for this new role to honor the deceased.
  • GATHER INPUT. It may surprise you to hear what’s actually important about the family tradition. Perhaps it’s a feeling that’s created or the singing that’s shared — and not the actual event.
  • MAKE TIME TO TALK. Sit down with family members a few weeks before traditions are observed and talk about what’s meaningful to everyone involved. Sharing what it means to each person can help everyone understand the significance of the family tradition and connect with one another. Ask questions, and listen. Perhaps your young cousin may be ready to help Grandma with the stuffing this year.
  • THINK OF CHANGE AS POSITIVE. View the new ideas or modifications as a positive opportunity to keep family traditions going. These opportunities can encourage different family members to become more involved in new ways, while still honoring past traditions.
  • REMAIN FLEXIBLE. Sometimes changes will need to occur repeatedly until it feels right. Give yourself permission to modify and adjust as needed, making those family traditions more meaningful. Even fish change their swimming locations; it’s alright to find another spot to cast your line.

Jenny West works at FamilyMeans in Caregiver Support & Aging Services. FamilyMeans is an active member of the Metropolitan Caregiver Service Collaborative.