Two weeks ahead of Christmas, Rebecca Riffkin welcomed a motley group of 20-somethings and 30-somethings to her southeast Washington, D.C., apartment for a holiday dinner with a seemingly un-holiday theme.
The eight guests sat for two hours over a hodgepodge meal that included homemade hearty tomato soup, fresh popcorn and chocolate-dipped strawberries to tell stories and glean wisdom from the one thing each had in common. Strangers just months ago before the monthly meals again, they had come together to support each other in a way few others in their lives could.
During a time of the year full of diverse family reunions and Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's traditions, these city transplants each had experienced a painful family death in recent years. Many were like 26-year-old Riffkin, whose 53-year-old father Matthew suddenly died a year ago from a heart condition.
The foods that evening were favorites of their loved ones. The tales shared were of holiday traditions, like Riffkin’s of bargain shopping for a Christmas tree each year with her father and sister on the night of Christmas Eve before coming home to decorate it. Some conversations turned to strategizing what to do this time of year without their loved ones.
“We can be vulnerable on grief and loss,” said Riffkin, who works as a writer at the Gallup polling organization and is spending Christmas with her mother and sister at home in Salt Lake City. She hosts the meals as part of The Dinner Party, a network of young people who have experienced death and come together over food in more than 50 cities cities from Anchorage to Sydney. “The people at my table know me better than some coworkers and friends,” Riffkin said.
“If one of your core people isn’t around, that empty place by the fire, or the phone number that won’t connect you anymore, becomes hard to ignore.”
As the season peaks this week with family get-togethers, vacations, parties and New Year's celebrations, it’s a time of joy for many. For those whose loved ones have died, it can also be a painful reminder.
The holiday time is “the moment when the world reminds us that we should be curled up with the ones we love. It’s when the onslaught of emails hits our inbox reminding us to buy a present for Mom,” said Carla Fernandez, 27, who launched The Dinner Party two years ago in Los Angeles with her friends, Lennon Flowers and Dara Kosberg, after her dad’s death.
“It’s when water cooler conversation at the office focuses on who we’re heading home to, and when the streets empty because most of us are kicking back with people we love. If one of your core people isn’t around, that empty place by the fire, or the phone number that won’t connect you anymore, becomes hard to ignore.”
The group is just one community addressing and thinking of what is for some the best times of year and, for others, the worst. In recent years, a host of resources and communities have come together online and offline around grief during the holidays. During a time of tradition, these Americans are forming new ones and rethinking old ones.
“Honestly, this time of year, the phone rings off the hook with emergencies and tragedies,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South Church in Boston.
Last week, the congregation held a Blue Christmas Service, following an Advent tradition of prayer on the longest night of the year, when many churches observe the lives of those who have departed or are suffering.
“Blue, too, is a true color of the season.”
It was “a reminder that the season is not all festive reds and greens. Blue, too, is a true color of the season,” said Taylor. “We sang carols in bluesy, jazzy tones. We prayed our sad prayers and wrapped an aching earth in all the hope and love we could muster. We lit our four Advent candles to pierce the world’s darkness with brave flames of peace, hope, joy and love. We gave thanks to God for coming into the world as it is, imperfect and bruised.”
For grief counselors, too, the holidays are a busy season.
“I see more people raw than any other time this time of year,” said David Kessler, who runs HolidayGrief.com and is the co-author of You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death. “I tell them there’s no right way to handle it. Your loved one’s life was unique, their death is unique, so grief will be unique.”
Kessler noted that while there’s a popular view that more people die during the holidays, it’s actually a myth with roots in grief and the longer nights of cold and darkness. “Death is more prevalent in our psyche this time of year. A loved one that dies around the holidays can send a bigger shock wave.”
That’s been much of the focus recently for Litsa Williams, a clinical social worker in Baltimore who is the co-founder and program director of “What’s Your Grief?” a three-year-old website that’s seen an uptick in visitors this month.
“We have very specific ideas of what holidays should look like," said Williams, 35, whose father died when she was 19. "Some are just from our culture or media, others are from our real experiences. But it’s different when people realize their holidays don’t look like that anymore,”
On What's Your Grief, the current top article is titled, “10 Times Grief Made You Cry This Holiday Season.” No. 5: “When you heard their least favorite holiday song.” No. 7: “When you found a gift they would have loved.”
“We have very specific ideas of what holidays should look like. Some are just from our culture or media, others are from our real experiences. But it’s different when people realize their holidays don’t look like that anymore.”
“It’s not going to be the same. How do we get into that? What are we going to do?,” said Williams, echoing some of the questions addressed on her latest podcast with website co-founder Eleanor Haley.
In Salt Lake City, where Riffkin will see her mom and younger sister for Christmas, she’ll attempt continuing family traditions without her dad.
“I tried to go buy a tree this year without him, but was really nervous,” said Riffkin, who said she’ll try again with her sister to “carry the torch” and bargain hunt, hoping to score a fir for less than $20. “We’d always kick Dad out of the house and do a cookie exchange party, just for the girls and my mom’s friends. It will be different this year, but we’re going to try. We’ll do our best.”
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