Commercials and store displays have begun reminding us that the holidays are on the way. Soon enough we’ll be surrounded by parties, brightly lit front yards, festive church services and other forms of seasonal cheer.
Yet for those who are grieving a death, holiday time is anything but cheerful.
"Life is going on and your loved one is not there. You think, ‘How could all these people be happy when my loved one is not there?’" Jeannette Berretta remarked.
"People want to go to sleep and wake up in January, when the holidays are over," Christine Lloyd added. "We’re starting already to put the grief into it. We’re anticipating that the days are coming. We put a lot of effort into worrying about them and what we’re going to do."
This is a leading topic for the Wounded Healers Bereavement Support Group Inc., cofounded 25 years ago by Berretta and Lloyd. Coping with the holidays was the theme for the group’s Oct. 14 meeting, and is likely to resurface frequently at the November and December gatherings.
Wounded Healers meets every second Tuesday (except in August) from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at St. Mary Our Mother School, 811 Westlake St., Horseheads. Berretta and Lloyd, who belong to St. Mary Our Mother Parish, emphasized that the meetings, which are free of charge, are open to people of all religious denominations. Average attendance is around 10 people, but some programs have attracted as many as 40.
Most meetings have set themes, such as holiday grieving and the January gathering that traditionally features a memorial service. Lloyd said some of the best meetings have consisted of guest speakers telling their stories of loss "and what helped them, how they might be doing now."
At other times, the course of discussion is determined by the participants. "We go with the flow," Lloyd said.
Berretta and Lloyd acknowledged that people may initially resist the prospect of sharing their grief with strangers.
"We always tell them if they might be coming for the first time, that you don’t have to say anything, just come and listen — and that it is a safe place, with very caring people that understand," Lloyd said. "We always hope that whatever the topic, there is a kernel for each one of them that they can take home."
Participants are welcomed whether their loss is of a spouse, relative or friend; of an elderly person or infant; or caused by illness, suicide or accident. Berretta added that the death doesn’t necessarily have to be recent.
"It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since your loved one has died. It’s never too late," she said.
Berretta added that she advises people to refrain from comparing their grief to that of others, lest they think it’s wrong to feel the way they do. "Your grief is your grief," she stated.
Berretta, a clinical nurse specialist, and Lloyd, a clinical social worker, are certified thanatologists — experts in death, dying and bereavement. They founded Wounded Healers in 1989 while serving as staff members at St. Mary’s Parish in Auburn, then expanded in the mid-1990s to the Southern Tier where they are now based.
In addition to its monthly support-group meetings, the nonprofit Wounded Healers operation offers private individual and family counseling. These services are fee-based but offered on a sliding scale. Berretta and Lloyd also do speaking engagements and chaplaincy duty while offering educational initiatives related to death and dying, including bereavement training for businesses, schools, hospitals and other groups.
Wounded Healers was begun as a response to what Berretta and Lloyd saw as a limited support system for people who deal with death. For example, they feel that not enough doctors, nurses and chaplains — folks who encounter death more often than most — are equipped to cope properly.
"Even though you’re used to it, you know it and have seen it all, it still affects us," Berretta said, adding that a leading reason people end up overwhelmed with grief is "because we don’t want to talk about it." She and Lloyd observed that death is a subject that gets sidestepped often; for instance, people may refer to the deceased as having "passed" instead of "died."
However, they stressed that addressing the subject head on is vital in moving past the grief. For example, Lloyd said folks shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the deceased person at holiday family events.
"We encourage people to have flowers on the table and light a candle in memory of their loved one," she said.
On the other hand, she said that people who are grieving may be limited in what they can handle emotionally, and should plan their schedules so that stress is minimized even if that means fewer holiday activities.
"There are ways to do things to get through it," she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To find out more about Wounded Healers may call 607-796-2795, visit www.woundedhealers.com or e-mail WHBSG1@aol.com.