Exploring grief and giving over the holidays
One Christmas season, Professor Jenna Drenten mentioned to a friend that she needed to buy her sister a gift. Confused, her friend asked, “Jenna, I thought your sister died. Why are you still buying her gifts?”
For Drenten, this conversation reinforced how special her family’s holiday traditions are—and led to a seven-year research project on giving to the dead and the concept of “restorative giving.”
Drenten’s older sister, Kristin, died in November 1997 at 15 years old. The family decided that Kristin would not be excluded from their holiday celebrations because she had passed away.
“We always go to the beach around the anniversary of her November 19th death, because it was her favorite place,” says Drenten. “We also take a Christmas tree out to her plot with ornaments she’s been gifted and cards for her.”
Giving to restore relationships
The friend who was confused about Drenten’s gift giving was a fellow PhD student at the University of Georgia. Together, they began to research the phenomenon of giving to the dead to both grieve and celebrate the loved one’s life.
In gift giving theory, giving includes the idea of reciprocity: that if people receive a gift, they will eventually return a gift. Drenten and her colleague found that many people give to those who have died—people who cannot tangibly reciprocate—to restore the both the broader relationship and the gift-giving relationship. This is called “restorative giving.”
There’s quite the market for restorative giving, Drenten found.
“There are huge industries for people to buy commemorative items for those who have passed away,” Drenten says. “Cemetery trinkets, flowers, and headstones especially—these all allow for a continuous relationship. When you think about headstone purchases, many of them are designed with the intention that people will continue to visit you. There are vases built in, which say to those that we leave behind ‘Don’t leave this empty. Don’t let me be the person with no flowers in my headstone!’”
In her research, Drenten found that many families, like her own, begin new rituals to restore the gift-giving relationship.
“One woman talked about how her deceased child's friends put ornaments on the tree for him,” she says. “If there's not a physical location to go to, people set up spots in their houses to symbolically give gifts. Some people write cards and seal them in envelope that symbolically allows the relationship to still be intact.”
No “finish line” for grief
Despite much evidence of families and loved ones using restorative giving to grieve, Drenten acknowledges that there is a culture of “crossing the finish line” when dealing with grief and sadness.
“People are uncomfortable with talking about feelings like grief, pain, and suffering,” she says. “There’s this idea that the sooner we can be done with it, the better we’re off, which is not true at all and not how grief operates in reality.”
Instead, Drenten finds restorative giving not only an interesting market culture to study, but a healthy way for families and loved ones to deal with and understand death.
“It’s healthy and a positive mechanism to be able to move forward. We say after loved ones die that things will get back to normal, but they won't. Gift giving rituals allows survivors to establish new normal.”
No wrong or right way to grieve
As the holiday season approaches, Drenten offers advice to those dealing with the death of a loved one.
“There’s no right or wrong way to deal with grief around the holidays,” she says. “It is very hard because the holidays are meant to be the time of year where everyone is joyous. There’s this expectation to feel gratitude, but it's okay to feel sad, and that doesn’t make you any less grateful.
“This may not be for every family, but my family talks about my sister all the time. She is 100% a part of our conversations. I would encourage people grieving. If they want to talk about their deceased loved ones, talk. And allies in grief, let that person take the lead, let that person talk openly if they want to, or not if they don't want to.”
Drenten shared this message and her research on The Conversation, a news site that brings the knowledge of researchers and academics to the general public. Read Drenten’s article →
She brings it to her classes, too.
“When I first joined Quinlan, I started Kindness for Kristin. I couldn't go home that holiday season, so I gave students five dollars to pay it forward.
“Now it's something I do every fall, on or around November 19th—the anniversary of my sister’s death. For me, it’s become a form of restorative giving: I give to my students, and they pay it forward by using the money to spread kindness to others, just as my sister would have done.”