Recently I heard from a woman worrying about a relative who faces a tough transition in her life and who, so far, is resisting it.
The relative lost her husband a couple of years ago and now faces another kind of loss: the loss of traditions and rituals she always enjoyed when her daughters gathered in her home for religious holidays. Rather than accepting her children's invitations to visit their homes for these occasions, she still expects them to travel to hers.
For the first year or two, they did. But now, with growing children and busy lives in different cities, the trip is getting more difficult, and they feel the need to establish their own rituals, to begin their own family observances. Still, the mother resists their invitations, insisting that they come "home" to her.
As another holiday season approaches, families everywhere will face variations of this dilemma.
It's not an easy one to resolve, because holiday observances and celebrations are an important way of defining ourselves and our families. On these occasions we usually feel a need to gather with those who are closest to us -- the people without whom our lives feel incomplete.
Yet as children grow up and form their own attachments, the urge to go "home" begins to conflict with similar urges in a spouse, or the complications of transporting children long distances, or simply the pressures and demands of jobs, commitments and finances.
Meanwhile, parents of grown children face their own concerns. In this woman's case, her children's desires to start their own holiday observances represent yet another unwanted change. The loss of her husband was a big enough upheaval in her life. Why should she have to face other unwelcome changes, which only reflect and reinforce the loss of her husband?
In this case, both sides are right.
Children do need to establish their own homes with their own traditions. At the same time, parents find it hard to face all the changes life can impose. This mother, for example, apparently wants her life to resemble as closely as possible the life she lived before her husband died.
Perhaps the best solutions are the obvious ones -- for the mother to alternate her holidays between her children, or even for the mother and daughters to take turns hosting the family for the holidays (to the extent that this kind of arrangement is practical). But, as one therapist cautions, what neither side needs is a power struggle.
In this story we can see the forces that make holidays an emotionally loaded time for every family. The pleasure we take in holidays comes in large part from the traditions that grow up around them -- the common memories that help to bind us together as families and as a community.
Yet tradition has a dark side, too. Because it grows from the past it helps to bind us to the past, and there are times in life when we must move beyond the past in order to find new reasons for living. Traditions grow and change, taking on richer meaning in the process.
Our lives change, too, sometimes abruptly and painfully, and few things stir up that pain as easily as holidays -- especially those meant to be joyous celebrations.
Life's losses don't mean that our traditions must die. They do mean that we may have to adjust our observance of tradition, folding old ways into new realities.
That's what recovery and renewal are all about.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.