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Arts & Life

Holiday Traditions Evolve After A Family Loss


The holiday season is a time for families to come together. For many, that means a warm home cooked meal filled with the flavors of tradition. But celebrating can be a challenge after the death of a family member. 


SDPB’s Chynna Lockett shares how her family has rebuilt their holiday. They bring together different religions, political views and ethnicities - through food.


My grandma, Ann Hennies, smiles as she sifts through a stack of family photos on the kitchen table. 

The house is peaceful...for now. Next week, four generations of family members will fill every room with noise as we cook, laugh and play. Gathering at Grandma’s on Christmas Eve for a good dinner is our family tradition. 


Chynna:  “So Grandma, what do you think of Christmas Eve dinner and what feelings does it spark for you? 

Grandma Ann: “Well it’s just a time that we get together and it’s basically eating and opening christmas presents. And it’s kind of nice to do.”  


When my grandpa, Tom Hennies, was alive, he did all of the cooking and planning. Grandpa was an amazing cook. I remember the years when I’d sit at the kid’s table with my brothers and cousins. We would eat his holiday clam chowder and sneak our vegetables to the dogs. We’d all play card games then take turns opening gifts. It’s one of my favorite days of the year, and Grandma Ann says the tradition has roots with my Great Grandmother. 


Grandma Ann: “Before when Grandma was alive it was at Grandma’s house and then we started having it so it was just us and grandma and our family.”

Chynna: “So it’s been going on for a couple generations then?”

Grandma Ann: “Yeah Christmas Eve has been going on for a long time.”


Grandma Ann says when family members have died or moved away, the celebrations changed. That’s what happened when my Grandpa Tom passed away 10 years ago. He was such a good cook, one of the hardest parts of the transition was figuring out the menu. There have been a couple clam chowder attempts, one by Grandma Ann who admits…


“It was not good.” 


We’ve had bland beef stew, a pizza delivery and excessively spicy chicken tacos. This year it’s chicken cordon bleu. But nothing is the same as Grandpa Tom’s dinner. 


This experience isn’t unique to my family. 


Mark Vande Braak is a psychologist at Avera Health. 

“I specialize in a field called thanatology which is grief.” 


He says it’s helpful for families to talk about how holidays might change after someone passes. 


“Things change after we lose a loved one so that communication is pinnacle. You don’t have to continue the same thing you can change it. You may not want to do the same things or you may not even have the energy to keep that tradition the same.” 


Vande Braak says people don’t forget their loved ones just because traditions change. He challenges people to share memories that their loved ones created in life. 


Old photo of Grandpa Tom

“Those don’t go away do they? They’re still part of us. So how can we honor that tradition. For example what would grandpa want you to be doing? He probably maybe had a sense of humor and said ‘well you’re not going to be able to make that clam chowder like I did so why even try?’.”


For the record, that is exactly what Grandpa Tom would say. My Uncle, Shane Hennies, has years of holiday memories with his dad..my grandpa.   


“Well I think he was the patriarch of the family and that we actually used to just sit, and actually have a full meal. And it’s because he was the best cook I’ve ever known.” 


Uncle Shane and his family used to make a six hour drive--often braving bad weather--to get to Rapid City for Christmas Eve. He says coming home was his favorite holiday feeling. 


“Sometimes we'd make it by Christmas Eve dinner and other times we didn’t make it until one o’clock in the morning. But grandpa would always get up, even if it was really really early and he’d go out and heat up clam chowder and hard rolls. And he’d sit down and rock the grandchildren while Mandy and I ate to our hearts content.” 


Uncle Shane says the holidays got stressful as his family grew. There were stops at several different houses and it took a lot of preparation. But he wanted to make sure his kid’s experiences were as positive as his own. 


“The real joy of it is watching the looks on your kid’s faces and knowing the memories that they’re going to have 20, 30 years from now too about that holiday. About that gift. About that game they played with their cousins or going out in the snow.” 

Grandma Ann and her kids


When we get together, our family relishes in those Christmas Eve memories and we make plenty more. Psychologist Mark Vande Braak says that’s an important part of carrying on traditions.


“What I always encourage my patients to do is be able to share their family’s legacy-the memories of that person and to find ways to really explore how valuable they werelly were in our tradition and our life. And I think if you lose a spouse, or if you lose a child it really doesn’t mean that they're forgotten. We’ve just got to find a way to relocate them in our heart verses our head.” 


Vande Braak says it’s normal for things to change over time. 


Since my grandpa passed, traditions have transformed as we’ve welcomed new people into the family. My 25 year old brother, Chance Lockett is now married and has two kids. 


One of my favorite holiday stories involves his wife, Caitie. A few years back, Chance snuck out before dinner to meet his then girlfriend across the street. But our entire family watched their embrace through Grandma Ann’s windows. I still tease them about making out. 


Chance: “Uh yeah, you guys definitely did snoop on our first kiss, but I certainly wouldn’t call it making out.”

Chynna: “Was that your first kiss?”

Chance: “Yeah that was indeed. Thanks for making it awkward as an entire family.”

Chynna: “The whole family saw your first kiss on Christmas Eve?”

Chance: “Yeah that was definitely a thing.” 

Chynna: “Oh my god that is so cute!” 

Chance: “See I planned to make it romantic but you guys were making it dorkey instead.” 


That sound in the background is my two year old nephew talking. 


Chynna: “Can you say ‘I love you’?”

Two year old nephew: “I love you.” 


Now, my brother gets to build his own traditions with his family. He says so far..


“We have done one thing and that’s get stockings at our house with personal presents for each other that aren't as planned. So we all have stockings and Caitie and I get to help fill them up with just totally random gifts that we don’t ask about.” 


And… they’ll make time to come to our family dinner and bring along a ton of baked goods. There may not be anymore perfect holiday clam chowder-but we’ve decided it’s the quality time and the memories that count.


Chynna: “Can you say you’re my favorite auntie?”

Two year old nephew: “You’re my favorite auntie.”