How do you celebrate the life of a departed loved one?

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Sometimes a religious service, or flowers, or candles aren’t enough. But sometimes they are. How do YOU find comforting in celebrating ones life? (Photo by Medill News21CC BY 2.0
This past Sunday night my mother lost her life to Kidney Cancer. She was a wonderful person and I want to throw a celebration of life for her in the coming month. We are having a traditional Catholic mass for her but since that is not my faith, I know that it will not be a satisfying goodbye for me.

The Offbeat Empire has been there for many of my life stages, I hope the community can be here for me now as well. I’d love any advice and guidance from those who have lost a loved one and have chosen to do an event to celebrate their life. — Liset

Many traditions and faiths honor the passing of loved ones with rituals and celebrations. These are meant to help friends and family mourn by enjoying happy memories. A celebration of life is a wonderful way to say goodbye.

When my grandmother passed, we held a Catholic mass for her, too. It was beautiful to see how many people came to pay their respects and how many lives she’d touched. At the same time, it wasn’t really closure for me, either. That came later.

Our family gathered at my uncle’s home and settled into couches and familiar stories, tall tales and tearful laughter, recalling many cross-country moves as a military family, her trademark no-nonsense wit, and times she’d put each of us in our place with humor and grace. It was healing for all of us to share our stories, laugh, and remember so many bright spots in our lives with her. As the afternoon turned into evening, we ate together, a potluck of extended family specialties that were truly comfort food, and broke out the Irish whiskey.

All this is to say that celebrating life is exactly what you make of it. There are no set guidelines or rules to follow — whatever you and your family are comfortable with is just right. Some people gather at a familiar hearth and share stories. Others rent out a hall and throw open the doors to colleagues and far-flung friends. Favorite foods, music, or drinks may be shared in memory of your loved one.

You might decide there are words you need to say, or you might just let the words of others comfort you. If you’re inclined to collect photos and pass them around to set the scenes for your stories, do just that. If you’d rather set them in a display, do just that. If a guestbook of some kind would give you more comfort later, consider the kinds of alternatives that have been meaningful for people in other life stages. Autographing a treasured recipe book, signing an old guitar, or scrawling memories onto squares for a quilt might give you a tangible keepsake from the celebration of your loved one’s life.

Finally, find a release to help you find your goodbye. Maybe it’s sealing a letter, letting go of a balloon, burning a candle, or just saying it out loud. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Your release is a personal expression, and it’s ok to make it a private one if that’s your comfort zone.

Homies, let’s help each other heal — how do you celebrate the life of a departed loved one?

Comments on How do you celebrate the life of a departed loved one?

  1. When my daughter died, we had a subsequent “Gathering”. We had a blank journal that we circulated for people to share their memories of her, some funny, some serious, most poignant. We shared food and conversation and it provided relief for many of us. It gave friends and acquaintances the chance to talk about her.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss.

    One of the things I recommend is to make a box with all the things you want to remember her with – letters, pictures, objects. This way, when you miss her you have things you can turn to for comfort. It’s part of how I continue to keep my father’s memory alive even after he’s been gone for 20 years.

    Also, ask people to write down their memories – stories fade with time and having these things written down means a lot later on.

    They aren’t immediate life celebrations, but things you can do to preserve her stories for your future.

  3. I am sorry for your loss.

    One of my first experiences with death was the wake/viewing for my great grandmother when I was a child. The opening for family members to get up and share stories they remembered of him is an incredibly strong memory, and I was surprised at later funerals to find the story telling missing.

    When my grandmother passed away, I remember staying up into the late hours with my sister and cousins, making our way through a bottle of Jack Daniels. Along with talking about her, we also talked about our family, acknowledged the role she played. My grandmother had been a true matriarch, and I remember the sense of a void, and wondering who would fill that focal role in anchoring a family growing older and branching off with her gone. For my generation, the grandkids and nieces, I think that night remembering her, affirming who we were to each other, and leaving with an empty whiskey bottle and vows to take up her role in keeping us together, however much geography and life might scatter us, meant more to us for her memory than any funeral could have done.

    • The memorial for my husbands grandmother consisted in large part of an unstructured series of speeches by anyone who wanted to get up and talk. People sang, chanted, played music, told stories or just talked about who she had been to them. It was really sweet and it seemed like it helped people engage with the loss and process it and start to mourn and heal.

      There was also a labyrinth walk through the labyrinth on her property, which was spiritually significant to her and to the family. It was sort of amazing to watch a large group of weaving back and forth past each other through the labyrinth (and one small great grandchild running back and forth heedlessly over the lines.)

  4. A celebration of life was held for a family member of mine a bit after her passing. I had no idea what to expect from something called a “celebration of life,” but some things I thought made quite an impact at the celebration were a mass release of balloons with wishes/memories/messages written on them, a photo scrapbook with lots of blank areas for people to either simply sign or write stories/memories, and just a good place to gather (with lots of food!) so people could just hang out and talk and feel like a big family.

    • Paper Lanterns with a tea light candle, Release the lantern with the loved ones name on it, preferably in caligraphy, it into the sky after saying whatever moved you while you wrote they’re name beautifully, poignant or a meditative state, onto the lantern. Open your heart and mind, Be True and Kind about what you say to the deceased loved one. This can be wonderful for close friends and family and can be done as long as their is still one person who still wishes to reach out to their spirit. A Not a 1 year death anniversary, it is their 1st Celestial Birthday and so on.

  5. Very sorry for your loss.

    A dear elderly friend of my mother’s passed away a few years ago. They found when going through her papers an envelope containing a fistfull of $100 bills and a note that she wanted her family to go out to a really great dinner — so that’s what they did. Even if your loved one didn’t leave behind such detailed instructions, gathering together to support one another and remember your departed loved one with tears, smiles and even perhaps some laughter can be very healing. You can mourn her passing, while still celebrating the wonderful person she was.

  6. I’m so sorry for your loss. Cancer is the worst. My mom died in December of lung cancer and I find myself pondering the same thing.

    Up until the very end my mom was so full of life. This was the lady that made a Batman Christmas tree just for me and dyed her hair pink for my wedding. I’d like to do something to celebrate her, but I’m at a loss for ideas other than just recreating some of her favorite things with my family. My sister and I will probably go to the coast and go fishing, or wear a costume for some thing, or wear pink and go buy something with a cat on it. I don’t know yet.

    I’m very interested in following this post though, there are some great ideas here already. Homies are the best.

  7. Heh, just last night as I was falling asleep I turned over and told my partner, “sweetheart? Promise me there will be puns at my funeral.” He responded, “Of course there will be puns at your funeral!”

    I think it’s all about remembering together, and I really like the idea of people getting together to share memories.

  8. I’m sorry about your mother. I would do an informal party at home too; I find the traditional raising of a glass to be very comforting and respectful, and a load of good food too counts as both looking after yourself and remembering the joyful things in life. If there i

  9. Best of luck finding your own special and meaningful way to honor and celebrate your mom. I am certain you will find something that works for you and feels “right.”

    When my dad passed, kind of like you mentioned, we did some traditional things but they didn’t offer me what I really needed. The truth is that I didn’t know what exactly I needed or wanted. I think in part because his death was unexpected but also because I think it is one of those things that no amount of planning can really prepare you for. In my experiences, finding the right things to do that gave me what I needed sometimes took a little time to figure out but in the end I always found something that worked for me.

    Looking back, there are two things that were particularly special and helpful for me. First, my sister and I took a week and took a short vacation together. It was nothing fancy or lavish, and not to some exotic place. My sister and I were the most important things in my dad’s life and it meant the world to him that we had a good relationship and were close. So spending time, just the two of us, to enjoy each other’s company, share stories, and laugh, felt like right. I know you specifically asked about “events” but one of the most special times I had after my dad’s death was the time I spent alone. Several times I sat alone, with candles and music, and wrote letters to him and talked out loud to him. It wasn’t exactly an event, but it felt like a way to honor the relationship my dad and I had that included so much time spent without others around.

    Sorry for the long reply!

  10. I’m so sorry to hear about your mom.

    When my uncle passed a few years ago, he had very specific instructions. And so, we rented out a bar. Tons of family and friends came and we had all of this favorite foods, from chicken wings to pizza, and plenty of drinking as well. We put up pictures of him around the bar and everyone wrote in a guestbook and left with a small photo of him to take home. We all told stories and shared a moment of reflection. It was sad, but also happy in that we were all together and thinking of him. To this day, it is the most memorable tribute and it helps me remember him even more fondly.

    I think the reason this was so special, was because it was so very him and reminded me so much of his personality and his warmth. Maybe thinking about your loved ones personality and what they were like in life, could help you figure out how to celebrate them? Perhaps getting together in their favorite place or doing something they loved to do, would help you feel more connected to them and their spirit?

  11. The wake we held for my Nana is one of my favourite memories. We tidied the house, had her dressed in her best, covered all the mirrors, and I just listened to her siblings tell all the stories they could remember. That means more to me than the formal Mass and dinner we had as a funeral. Nana may not have been the most assertive person in life, but she had a beautiful death.

  12. this isnt exactly a closure-getting, one time party to celebrate life thing, but- my ex’s mother lost her father and brother very close to one another, and every year on their birthday and day of their death, she has their favorite drink, a jack and coke. sometimes others join her, sometimes it is just her, but its something she has done for years now. i always thought it was very sweet, and a great remembrance of them.

    • This is what we have always done for loved ones who have passed. On their birthday we eat their favorite food and drink and would talk about them and look at pictures. As a kid I didn’t always appreciate the coffee-flavored ice cream we had in honor of my maternal great-grandmother, but I’m so happy to have heard the stories about her each year so I could remember them and pass them on to my children. My mother’s side is Native American, so I feel like this is a good mix of traditional and modern ways of remember those who came before us.

  13. I highly recommend the book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death by Sarah York. The author has many wise suggestions, especially for those who are uncomfortable with religion, for ways to create rituals that help people process grief.

  14. When my mom passed away a few years ago my brother, dad, grandma, and I split her ashes up and spread them out in all of her favorite places. The whole process took a few months because of the travel involved, but it was nice to be able to go to the places where we had such great memories of her.

  15. So unbelievably sorry for your loss – my mother passed away a year ago and the pain some days is still as fresh as the day after. I’m sending you much love.

    I found that it helped to not feel as if I was limited to just celebrating my mom at her memorial. I spread things throughout the year – for example, I planted a tree in her old garden with my little brother on Mother’s Day and had a moment together afterward. I did things for Christmas (partially because her birthday was Christmas Day.)

    The only day I didn’t really “celebrate” was the anniversary of her death. My family members wanted to, for some odd reason (as in, I got weird cards in the mail saying “Thinking of you on the anniversary!”, etc.) I would far rather remember her living than remember the time she died.

    Having sent off other family members at Catholic services as well, I say, give a eulogy and leave it at that. But start planning something for an upcoming significant date – significant to you. No one will fault you or be confused that you want to have yet another celebration.

    Much love.

  16. I lost my father very suddenly to a heart attack when I was 24. His funeral was ruined by a lot of family drama, of the running-for-our-lives and hiring-a-bodyguard variety. It took months for the paranoia to subside.

    One little ritual that helped almost immediately was something I did to recall happier times with him – slurpees and scratch-off tickets. Once a month, close to the date of his death, I stop whatever I’m doing and find a gas station to get a frozen coke and a handful of dollar scratch offs.

    This little ritual has sustained me now for almost 4 years. I’ve done it alone, with my sister, with our mother, with friends, and with my dog – no slurpees for the dog though. This little ritual always takes me back to the late 90’s, when my father would let me and my sister ride in the “way back” of our Jimmy, drinking “fuzzy things” and wondering how much money we would win on our “scratchies.”

  17. Trees. Arbor Day Foundation will plant 10 trees for $10 with their Trees in Memory or Trees in Celebration program.

    Over the course of 50 years, a single tree can generate $31,250 of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycle $37,500 worth of water, and control $31,500 worth of soil erosion. I’d say that’s quite a legacy.

    I just purchased a memorial for my nephew, who died while hiking in the San Bernardino National Forest. The trees underscore his love of outdoors and provide a memorial his daughter can visit throughout her lifetime.

  18. When my godmother died, after the funeral, my mother, my aunt and many of their friends decided to hold a wake for her at a location they’d loved as teenagers. They got a tree planted in her name, we all hung around, drank too much and sang.

  19. When my grandmother died, she had been too sick for a long time to enjoy a lot of things, but so long as she was concious she enjoyed her nighttime whiskey, so when she passed, we had an old-fashioned wake (with her ashes there) at an Irish pub that had imported part of its walls from Ireland (her favourite place in the world), and ended it with shots of whiskey. Drinking whiskey may not be meaningful for your case, but I would reccomend gathering somewhere that is meaningful to you and doing a symbollic gesture. Like go to a park you loved and eat her favourite cupcake, or go to her favourite restaurant and order something she’d just love. Invite everyone who you think will understand your gesture. Though I will say, there was a certain hilarity release level in watching my straight-laced cousin do whiskey shots!

  20. When my best friend passed at the age of fifteen, her parents invited everyone who knew and loved her up for some “nature time”. We had grown up in the mountains, and she loved nature. We all brought some food, sat in the garden that she had made, and shared stories, some bringing tears and others bringing laughter. We all wrote down the things we wished we had said to her, some we shared, others too personal, and tossed them into the fire pit. Ultimately, she was cremated, and her parents gave some ashes in small jars to anyone who wanted to take them as long as they promised to spread them some where with personal significance. There are bits of her all over the world now.

    When another friend died, we gathered at his favorite sushi place and just chatted. He had gone there almost every Saturday for a couple years and the staff there shared their own stories of this crazy kid who wanted to try everything.

    When an aunt died, we remembered her (and her love of backpacking) by gathering some family and embarking on a three day backpacking adventure.

    My mother honored her brother by building a pond for him in her side yard. It took years to complete and was not easy. New Mexico mountain soil is notoriously rocky, and everytime she’d get frustrated she’d stop and mutter something about how her younger brother was always a pain in her neck and she’d share a story from when they were children. I think the physical labor also helped her get through her anger at the circumstances surrounding his death.

    My advice is to think of things that make you feel close to your mother- if she taught you to sew and you enjoy it, make a quilt. If she could always be found in her garden, plant something in her memory. If she had a particular meal that she loved to make, think of her while making it and share it with the family. Sometimes closure takes a really long time, but it helps to do things that bring you close to the person you lost.

    • Hi Shelly,

      I am publishing a book on memorial services and would like to use the stories you mentioned in your posting. Do I have your permission to do that?



  21. A friend recently passed away from cancer. He was an amazing man and very well loved. He was also an incredible musician and director, and as such decided to help plan his own memorial, which was truly an incredible celebration of his life. And at the end, per his wishes, we sang along to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

  22. While I’m not Buddhist, I grew up going to a lot of Buddhist funerals where people had the regular service, then had an enormous potluck where everyone could catch up on each other’s lives and share memories of that person. I don’t celebrate Day of the Dead (not Latina), but I very much like the concept—I’ll pour myself & my father each a glass of Scotch for his birthday, for instance. I drink mine & leave his for the evening, then pour it out the ground for him the next day. When my grandmother dies, I’ll do the same for her with port. I also have photographs of everyone that I burn incense for when the mood strikes me. I’d like to do some research into the Obon festival as well. Whatever works best for you—I prefer things are completely private, but public gatherings can be a great time. Go out to dinner & talk about them! I’m sure they’d love it.

  23. My father died in October of last year, after six months of rapidly declining physical ability due to ALS. Think Steven Hawking, except that my dad’s progression was altogether more rapid and terminal.

    My brothers, husband and I were all lucky enough to have a relative willing to take us in to spend time with him for those last few months, so we got a bit of a long farewell. Still, the morning he passed away, we all still felt a little numb from the shock for an hour or so.

    Thankfully, my dad gave us a lot of things, and his wonderful (and terrible, at the same time) sense of humor was what helped all of us move forward. About an hour after we went in to see him before the Hospice team came an took the body away, we were sitting in my Aunt’s home cooking breakfast, and my husband comes into the living room to tell us we were out of bacon. “Saddest thing that’s happened to me all day,” was the almost immediate quip back from my older brother.

    We all laughed and felt guilty and then laughed more because we knew Dad would have laughed just as much. And so that’s how we started it. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to start really talking about my dad as openly and freely as I would if he were still around, and even now I still have moments of sadness.

    My dad was in the Navy for over 20 years, and I’ve got the flag from his funeral service as well as his ribbons, which I’m going to put on display once our new home is finished.

  24. When my fiance’s stepfather died in a tragic motorcycle accident, it fell on me to plan the post funeral reception. One of the most touching parts of the reception was when we released the balloons that were the colors of his favorite team. I had put sharpies on the tables and everyone had some time to write a message to him to send up. It was kind of a nice way to give everyone a moment to say what they may have never had a chance to say. I know it meant a lot to my future mil, and was a really nice moment of silence when they were released.

    I’m so sorry for your loss. 🙁

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