How to deal with grief during the holidays
In Michele Allman’s grief support groups, people start talking in August about how they will deal with their grief during the holidays.
If they wait until later, sometimes they are blindsided by "Christmas creep," as Christmas decorations start popping up in stores in October alongside Halloween decorations, Allman said.
Allman, bereavement coordinator for Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester and Monroe County and a licensed master social worker, said people who are grieving should acknowledge that celebrations may not be the same.
"It’s supposed to be such a happy, festive time, and it’s often very difficult," she said.
Issues with grieving and the holidays are very common, said Christine Lloyd, a clinical social worker and a thanatologist -- a person who has completed post-graduate-level studies of death and dying.
Lloyd cofounded the Wounded Healers in Auburn in 1989 with Jeannette Berretta, a clinical nurse specialist and thanatologist. Later, Wounded Healers moved to Horseheads and now meets monthly at St. Mary Our Mother School.
Lloyd and Allman offer seven tips for handling grief during the holidays:
1. Keep in mind that the difficult day in question is only 24 hours long.
Lloyd said many times people will be dreading the day weeks in advanced, but they find that the anticipatory time is the most difficult part.
"Making a plan for what’s going to happen this year is the best way to get control of the anticipatory experience," Lloyd said.
She said in the instance of the death of a child, grieving parents could still plan to have a holiday gathering at their house, but could ask others to bring food. In another instance, grieving parents who struggled with the thought of putting up Christmas decorations asked friends of their deceased daughter to come over and put up their tree and decorate it.
"It was a union of grieving friends and family, and a difficult job got done," Lloyd said.
Planning ahead and downsizing celebrations can help minimize stress, Allman said. Maybe this year a small tree would be best, or maybe exterior lights could be skipped. She said people should remember that there is no one right way to celebrate. Allman noted that family members or friends may differ on what celebrations they want, based on the feelings they are experiencing.
"Be aware that grief affects other people differently," Allman said.
2. Give those who are grieving room to say no or to make plans on their own terms.
For instance, a person may opt to skip a tradition such as cookie making, or to attend a party but only stay for a few hours. Allman said she suggests people drive separately to events.
"You can come and go as you need to," Allman said.
Those who are grieving should tell themselves that they can do the best they can and that they should only do what they can handle.
"Grieving people get a lot of sympathy, but it’s also necessary that they have choices and they are still autonomous and in control," Lloyd said.
3. Consider acknowledging someone who is missing.
A lit candle or a bouquet of flowers at the person's usual seat might be a way to recognize his or her presence. Mentioning deceased loved ones during grace can help people feel more relaxed, Lloyd said. This type of gesture can take pressure off of both the grieving person and their families.
"Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that, ‘Oh yeah, we talked about the elephant in the room,’" Lloyd said.
Additionally, adding a holiday grief ritual can help create a new tradition full of meaning, Allman said. For instance, families may want to place a wreath at the cemetery every year or attend an annual Mass to remember their loved ones. Journaling or writing a letter to a loved one might be another way to mark each holiday, she said.
4. Be aware that holidays with children who are grieving present a special set of circumstances.
Allman said although people want to keep traditions and keep the fun for the kids, it’s also good to acknowledge the pain children may be feeling.
"Talk about grief and let them know it’s OK to be sad," she said. "Encourage children to actively mourn through playing, drawing, storytelling, reading. There are a lot of good children’s books out there."
5. Remember that there’s no escaping grief.
Lloyd explained it is common for people to want to go on a cruise or travel for the holidays rather than face a painful situation, but she points out that this approach often is not successful.
"You still take grief with you, and oftentimes you are alone without the people who could support you," Lloyd said.
6. Look for ways to help support those who are grieving.
For instance, people could ask what they need and when do they need it, such as help with shopping or sending cards. Flowers and cards also are welcome year round, Lloyd said.
"I always think they should get flowers once a month instead of just at the funeral home," Lloyd said. "It’s not over at the funeral home. It’s never too late for a sympathy card."
7. Make the best of the holiday time, including remembering to treasure relationships with those who are still with us.
Allman said speaking with a grief counselor or taking part in a support group often is helpful for those who are struggling with grief.
"You have to go through these feelings to get through grief," she said.
- - -
Many parishes offer grief support groups that are open to the community, and there are others in the Rochester and Finger Lakes areas run by the agencies Visiting Nurse Service and Lifetime Care. Details are available at www.vnsnet.com/hospice-care/bereavement or by calling 585-787-2233, ext. 8241, and www.lifetimecare.org or by calling 585-475-8800.
Wounded Healers meets the second Tuesday of the month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads. Details are available at www.woundedhealers.com or by calling 607-796-2795 or 315-568-5227. Lloyd said a new grief group is in the process of being established in Auburn.