Holiday Traditions May Change After a Loved One Dies From Cancer, But The Memories Remain


A cancer survivor explains how his holiday traditions changed after his wife was sick with and eventually died from cancer, and why each changing tradition holds a special place in his heart.

Traditions. What are they? How are they started? What do they become when one no longer fits into your life?

These are personal questions that families must decide for themselves. Often, a tradition is connected to a holiday and takes religious beliefs, meals, local events, and even the local weather into account. The winter season is here, and a variety of religious and secular events take place which tie into our lives.

We could live somewhere that, regardless of weather, the family plays a game of football before or after Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps snow is the norm, and a day of sledding is how we burn off those calories. Regardless, each family dynamic will find things they like and repeat them year after year until they are no longer spoken of but are just expected. These are major building blocks of memories.

As all families will move forward, children go out on their own, and we will try to honor those traditions by bringing them into their households, often blending traditions from two different family histories.

But what happens when cancer or a loss has stepped in and interrupted the ability to carry on a tradition? Or when the tradition itself seems to be a painful reminder of the person that is unable to participate or is no longer with us? At this point, decisions have to be made. Do we want to end a particular tradition? Can we adjust a tradition to include someone that is weakened? Can we honor the person we lost, such as keeping a place at the table for them?

This is something family and friends can decide together. It doesn’t have to be written in stone. If it doesn’t work, it can be changed. With these statements made, I would now like tell you a little about how our family adjusted.

Our house was the go-to house for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. My wife, Bonnie, reveled in decorating the inside (I took care of the outside under her supervision). Three days of meal prep was the minimum. Three six-foot tables and more than a dozen chairs would be picked up at the local rental store. The front room would be emptied of furniture and tables would be set, and as many as two dozen people would sit down for dinner.

So, when cancer struck and treatments made that impossible, it was hard to accept — but acceptance was the only option. So new traditions were formed. We now all met at a local buffet. The food was adequate, but the important thing was all of us being together.

Everyone got a chance to fill the group in on changes in their lives. In the end, we found that not having to clean everything up afterward was quite pleasant and wondered why we hadn’t changed sooner. This went on for a few years until Bonnie passed away.

Coincidentally, our oldest child had moved out and was ready to marry. Some of the oldest aunts and uncles that brought family and came to the dinners passed away. Some were in the same situation as ours, in that their children were now forming households of their own. With our children, our son and his family became the hosts while I was now one of the guests. This is just how it should be.

Aside from meals, there can be a plethora of other activities. At the time of their mother’s death, our son was living on his own, but our daughter was 12. This inspired me to create traditions specifically designed for the two of us. We would attend the local Christmas parade the Friday after Thanksgiving. Living in Oregon, we had the opportunity to go out and cut a tree. Decorating the tree carries the most sentimental memories, with many ornaments having been handmade by her mother.

We made a yearly trip to downtown Portland for the “Festival of the Last Minute,” where the Saturday market would run the entire week. At 25, she now has her own home, and those traditions are changing. For now, Christmas day is at my son’s house. But Christmas Eve is the one tradition my daughter and I have held.

With everything going on, we made Christmas Eve a little less hectic. To this day, the evening starts with takeout Chinese food while watching a couple Christmas movies (of which “Die Hard” is one) and ending with an exchange of gifts. Once she moved out, we began alternating homes each year. I would guess once her and her future husband have children, this tradition will be modified as well. But for now, it makes for a great tradition.

A tradition can be anything you want it to be — That muddy mess you make when out cutting a tree, a special meal you share at a food truck while shopping, the argument with people on whether a movie is actually a Christmas movie.

As it is with traditions, they are ever changing, and we can only hope the memories associated with them will keep us connected to those we can no longer share them with. I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season. Loved ones are never truly gone and live on in our hearts and minds.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

Related Videos
Beth Blakey speaking in an interview with CURE
Cancer survivor, Frank J. Peter, playing an original song on the piano