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9/11: Remembering Loved Ones Who Died and Celebrating That They Lived

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This blog is part of the series "The Impact of 9/11," focusing on individuals who have channeled their grief to make a positive difference in the years following the attacks.

For the past decade, we have publicly demonstrated our grief over the loss of lives and horrific events of 9/11 by building memorials and conducting ceremonies to honor those who died. Many of these activities are tied to the date and sites of the tragedies. For the families who were personally impacted, however, their private bereavement process is lifelong. Those who died will be remembered and missed at each family milestone, whether it's the first day of college, a birthday, holiday or family vacation.

Bereavement is often focused on remembering that a loved one died rather than celebrating that he or she lived. Is this the immutable nature of grief, or is there a more holistic approach to bereavement that encompasses both ends of the spectrum and everything in between?

One very powerful way to celebrate the lives of those who have lived is through continuing cherished family traditions. Traditions help us honor the past, celebrate the present and build the future. They are especially important for grieving children and teens who may be struggling not to forget the sound of their father's voice, the smell of their mother's clothing or the feel of holding their parent's hand. Struggling not to forget is a battle that time usually wins. When we embrace traditions, however, we transcend time. We remember all the details such as collecting only whole seashells at the beach with Dad, or how Mom always put caraway seeds in her holiday kielbasa.

For 15 years, Mommy's Light has been helping grieving children and teens keep alive cherished family traditions. We have fulfilled nearly 1,000 traditions and learned some very important lessons along the way. Children make meaning out of details and they feel heard and cared for when we pay attention to those details. For example, while we were interviewing three siblings whose mother was in the end stages of her disease about their favorite traditions, the oldest boy told us about going to an amusement park. He remembered going on his favorite rides with his mom, lugging their snacks all around the park, and loving the water park section. "Some of the kids had goggles," he casually mentioned. When the volunteers delivered his tradition package, the tickets and snacks were inside a rolling cooler. He was thrilled that he could easily tote the family's snacks around the park. In the bottom of the cooler, he found three pairs of goggles. His face lit up with surprise and joy because he knew he had been heard, and attention had been given to the most minute detail of his tradition. His mom, weak from her most recent chemotherapy, stood up and hugged her children as tears ran down her face, because we all knew that continuing this tradition was not about the goggles or the rolling cooler, it was about celebrating their lives together even after she died.

One teen in our Tradition Fulfillmentsm program shared:

"After my mom died, I thought that it was over for us to have any relationship, but Mommy's Light taught me differently and allowed me to remember my mother every year through a tradition. They were the first group of people to ever ask me, 'What did you do with your mother that you miss doing now?' They gave me hope that my mother would be remembered every year even though she has been gone for three years now."

"Continuing traditions is all about the life story, not the death story," says Darcie Sims, Ph.D., CHT, CT, GMS, a nationally recognized grief management specialist. "We need to be able to move towards the healing aspects of remembering the life, and the love that never goes away."