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Living with loss amidst celebration: Grieving during the holidays

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Catherine W. Idzerda
December 1, 2013

JANESVILLE—For those who are grieving, Christmas is the most miserable time of year.

First there's the inescapable Christmas music that evokes memories while at the same time reminding you those days now are gone.

Add to that the holiday landscape, saturated with decorations and lights, and the cultural imperative to be upbeat. This is a formula that seems especially designed to make a grieving person feel more alone, more vulnerable and more burdened with sorrow than before.

We asked specialists from Agrace Hospice Care and local ministers for their advice, both for those who are grieving and for their friends and relations who would like to help those suffering get through the holidays.

So what is the first thing to know?

“I would say that grief is a journey, and holidays are part of that journey,” said Fran Coan-Meredith, Agrace hospice counselor.

The season is difficult for many people, and grief just adds to the challenge.

“I think there are people who are struggling with a lot of things—grief, anxiety, exhaustion,” said the Rev. Jamie Swenson of Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church. “And there are so many people grabbing for your attention.

The season is “jammed at them,” as the ideal time to have a “perfect family time” or a “perfect time” in their personal lives, he said. But that just accentuates their loneliness.

But there is some good news. People who are grieving often find the holidays were a little better than they expected them to be, Coan-Meredith said.

“Because people are anticipating those days, that can create a lot of anxiety,” Coan-Meredith said.

Coan-Meredith offered these ideas for people trying to ease their way though the holidays while suffering from a significant loss:

--Surround yourself with people and places you feel comfortable with. Don't feel obliged to go to the same parties or spend time with friends that mean well but who just don't understand what you're going through.

Planning ahead is part of that process.

“You might have to set different limits for yourself,” Coan-Meredith said. “If you go to a party, you might want to think about driving separately so you can leave when you need to. Or tell friends that you'll come and attend for a short while.”

Being with people you're comfortable also might give you a chance to share stories and memories about your loved one.

“It's OK to cry during the holidays,” Coan-Meredith said. “And it's also OK to laugh and find joy in them.”

--Don't be afraid to make changes to holiday rituals.

It might be too emotionally difficult to face a holiday routine without a loved one.

“It's OK to say, 'I'm going to do something totally different,'” Coan-Meredith said.

Again, planning ahead will help.

“If you are going to make those changes, include your family and friends,” Coan-Meredith said.

Children are especially sensitive to those changes.

Changing holiday rituals is part of understanding your limits. For instance, you might not have the energy to bake 20 dozen cookies or take the grandchildren out to cut down a tree.

As part of changing rituals, it's OK to create a new ritual honoring the deceased person.

--Take care of yourself. Rest, nutrition and exercise will help keep you on a more even keel.

Knowing what to say

Unless you've been through the process, it's difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving. Even then, each person's experience with grief is so different that it can be a challenge to know the best way to offer support.

Coan-Meredith and Swenson offered some tips on what to say and what not to say—and how to help.

-Do say, “I'm sorry for your loss. 

-Do say, “It's OK to talk about---” filling in the blank with the name of the loved one. Then, provide a listening ear.

If you're uncomfortable with talking to someone in person, send him or her a card, Coan-Meredith said. It doesn't have to say a lot; your thoughtfulness will be what counts, she said.

Do not say:

--“It was God's will,” or “God needed an other angel.” First, you're making an assumption that the grieving person shares your faith. Second, it implies God specifically targeted the grieving person for his or her suffering.

If you know the person shares your Christian faith, try for a message of comfort. Remind them they are not alone, Swenson said.

“Christ has already been there and knows how you feel,” Swenson said. “He's not going to wave a magic wand and make it all better, but he is with you.”

--“I know just how you feel.” Nobody knows how another person feels. Even if you lost someone close to you, grief is different for each person. 

--“You need to get on with your life.” Grief is complicated, and sometimes just making it through the day is all a person can do. 

If you think someone is struggling with grief, gently suggest resources such as a grief-counseling group. All of the local hospice care organizations run grief groups, and there also are online groups.



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