New Holiday Traditions for Widowers

Gerald J. Schaefer, a 26-year professional in project management, wrote “The Widower’s Toolbox: Repairing Your Life After Losing Your Spouse” after his wife died. He is a member of the Wisconsin Regional Writer’s Association and the Neville Public Museum Astronomical Society and is active in the Boy Scouts of America. He lives with his two sons in Green Bay, Wisconsin. You can find out more about him, his book and his work here.

The loss of your wife takes on a whole new meaning around the holidays. How does a widower move forward without his loved one to reflect on the holiday’s purpose, without sharing good conversation, without celebrating love and enjoying togetherness?

It hardly seems possible. Even though the joy and happiness are abundantly present in others, those emotions are not felt in a widower’s heart. For these reasons, holidays become a very painful time for the bereaved.

Holidays are highly valued in our busy lives and there are many ways we can choose to celebrate them to meet everyone’s desires. Deciding how to celebrate a given holiday so that we don’t offend others while still enjoying a break in regular routine can be overwhelming. So many of us establish routine ways of celebrating them to ease the stress. We justify this same routine year after year by labeling these predictable behaviors “family tradition.” We plan dinners at Grandma’s house, we go to the annual parade, we display well-used decorations that just have to be there for the holiday to feel complete. Our holiday memories are centered around these family traditions.

Typically, your wife played a major role in these traditions, but now with her loss it becomes all too blatantly obvious that these celebrations will no longer be the same as they were in the past.

Men generally struggle more than women with the concept of establishing “new traditions,” probably because the great majority of traditions are all about family gatherings, usually involving large meals with extensive preparation at which women have historically been more skilled in the home. Men become overwhelmed with their inability to solve the problem of preparing an acceptable meal for the family to enjoy; then they become depressed about their inadequacy. This depression is compounded when a soul mate is no longer there to share a cherished tradition and the “special day” often becomes a painful reminder of the loss rather than a time of joy.

You may find it helpful for your holiday planning to deliberately include your lost loved one in some memorable fashion. Additionally, creating new traditions will become a meaningful way of channeling some of the feelings of loss and pain into a sense of renewed purpose for you, as well as other family members who also may be struggling with the loss.

Here are some simple ideas to consider:
Start by having a family brainstorming session to come up with ideas for celebrating the holidays. There may be family members who were waiting for an opportunity to start their own family traditions and now want to include you in their plans. The opportunities are endless; it’s time to try something new.

Continue with the established traditions, with other people standing in to take on the responsibilities your wife once filled. Split up the chores by making the meal a potluck where each member brings one dish. Use this opportunity to finally learn how to cook a turkey as a tribute to your wife! Not that you’ll ever do it as well as her…but who knows?

Assign a new turkey carver. Did your wife always carve the turkey? This is a great opportunity for the oldest child to step in. Then, when he or she reaches a certain age, the role can be passed down to the next in line. In their first attempts, it is not the end of the world if the turkey becomes minced meat in the process. Having family fun is the goal!

Volunteer at a homeless shelter on the day of the holiday. Dedicate that day of selfless charity and altruism to your late wife’s spirit. Get out of town. Use this time to travel to new places to see how other people celebrate the holiday. Maybe the holiday now becomes a new family ski trip. Or even a day trip to some special place nearby.

Make it all easy on yourself by hiring a professional chef to set up the meal the day before the holiday, so you can truly enjoy the company of those closest to you.

These ideas are just a start. The main thing is to focus on the importance of the day: to remember what did the holiday mean for you and your wife? Then live that day with that in mind, as yet another annual testament to her.

Excerpted from “The Widower’s Toolbox: Repairing Your Life After Losing Your Spouse,” by Gerald J. Schaefer with Tom Bekkers, MSW, APSW. Copyright (c) 2010 by Gerald J. Schaefer and Tom Bekkers, MSW, APSW. Reprinted by permission of New Horizon Press, Far Hills, N.J.