Every December, my family decorates two Christmas trees: one for our living room and one for the cemetery, where my sister is buried.
She died when she was 15 years old. Twenty years later, we still buy a new ornament each year to place on her mini graveside Christmas tree.
The ritual might seem a bit strange, but my family isn’t alone. If you drive past a cemetery during the holidays, you’ll likely see graves festooned with holiday decorations and seasonal trinkets.
As a consumer sociologist, I wanted to learn more about this ritual – why people might feel the urge to give something to someone who’s no longer alive, and how it influences the grieving process. After spending eight years observing American cemeteries and studying online grief support groups, my colleagues and I have been able to show how gift-giving can be a positive coping strategy, particularly during the holidays.
The opposite of ‘letting go’
Following the death of a loved one, a person experiences bereavement, which literally means “to be deprived by death.” Emotions can include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness and despair.
In American culture, people are usually allowed a window of time to grieve. But after a while, there’s pressure to “let go and move on.” Underlying this approach is the idea is that closure (and new relationships) can only happen once the grieving process has ended.
But this suggests grieving is a task that can be completed. In reality, there’s no clear “finish line”: Every death is unique, and people cope with death in different ways. It’s a complex process.
Psychologists Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman first captured this complexity in 1996 with a concept they call “continuing bonds.” Rather than trying to move on and stop thinking about a deceased friend or family member, it’s the idea that people can better cope if they maintain connections and slowly redefine their relationships with the deceased.
This could mean posting pictures on social media, taking a trip to a place the deceased loved one had always wanted to visit, and – as we discovered – giving gifts.
Read more about this interesting subject HERE