Honoring Lost Loved Ones During the Holidays
Dec 01, 2012 07:03AM
by Lisa Moore
My mother went out of her way to make the holiday season extra special for our family. She thoroughly enjoyed shopping, decorating, cooking and spoiling her children and grandchildren. I have fond memories of our Christmas rituals and raucous gatherings.
I lost mom to Alzheimer’s few a months ago and even though she spent the last four years of her life in a memory care facility, I faithfully brought our time-tested traditions to her so we could still share in the joys of days gone by.
Since saying goodbye to Mom I have been exploring the many facets of grief that come with such tremendous loss. There will be a void without her strong and bright presence this year, but I am determined to honor her spirit in meaningful ways this month.
For those that have suffered loss through death, divorce, separation, illness, or job loss, making it through the holidays can be challenging. Holiday cheer can be difficult to express if you're facing intense emotional pain.
Psychotherapist and grief expert Mandy Eppley says grief is amplified during the holiday season because those who have suffered loss not only have societal norms to contend with, but also the pain and isolation of mourning what used to be a joyous time.
“During the holidays all the images and messages we see are about family, relationships, partnership, togetherness, children laughing, warmth and closeness - and for so many of us humans, that is not the case. There is a cultural pressure to keep a lid on it and not bring anyone down.
Additionally, it triggers our deep sadness around what was, or what could have been or what will never be. This is real and naturally appropriate to experience. It is a normal part of the grief journey to be triggered around our grief and deeply feel our sorrow during the holidays,” says Eppley, co-founder of The Respite: A Centre for Grief and Hope.
Eppley says maintaining traditions can be important for some families, as well as creating new ones.
Shaun Bowman says the first Christmas after the loss of her father two years ago was extremely difficult.
“The absence of my dad was stark the first Christmas as that was his favorite holiday and he always went all out. The house didn't feel the same without his presence - we had all the decorations, the music, and the smells but without his enthusiasm things just could not be the same. The sadness was still raw and real, like a fresh wound.”
She and her three siblings are committed to honoring their father each year by maintaining his longstanding family tradition of assisting the less fortunate at an uptown church before they open gifts on Christmas morning.
“This was something my dad instilled in us all: the need to serve and put others first,” says Bowman, 21. The main way that we pay respects to what an extraordinary man he was is through prayer, serving others and spending time with God. I know that this is what he would have wanted.”
Bernadette Christi will experience her first Christmas after losing her 14-year-old son, Andrew, earlier this year. She says she will miss Christmas caroling with him, enjoying his laughter and enthusiasm as he opens his gifts and sipping egg nog together. She is dedicated to honoring him by living a life of love.
“He was my love, my first son and the light of my life. The only way to honor him is to spread all of that love I had for him to the world I live in and the people I know and will come to know,” says Christi, a psychotherapist and priest at The Centers of Light.
Eppley believes it’s essential for those grieving to make room for their feelings, something that isn’t always acceptable in our culture. She says minimizing, ignoring, blocking, or numbing feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety - the core feelings of grief - will make their experience more intense and isolating.
“A huge hole has been blown in my heart and the pain has been the worst pain I have ever felt,” states Christi. “But, I have chosen to feel the pain and not get caught in the anger or emotions of the loss. It takes great strength to feel your feelings and allow yourself to be vulnerable and it is exactly in that place that we can begin to heal and let go.”
Eppley, who has helped hundreds of people work through the effects of grief and trauma, feels it is her personal calling to shift how it is viewed in the world – moving from shame and isolation to unveiling grief’s transformative gifts.
“Grief’s great gift to us is it teaches us who we are, what we are made of, and entices us to search deeper and broader for why we are here,” she says.
Bowman says she could not have healed or grown the way she has since her father’s passing had he not been so sure of the existence of God.
“In a sense I have experienced some type of post-traumatic growth in his passing. I have never been more sure that everything that has happened is part of a much greater purpose and plan. This confidence will hold me together this holiday season.”
Christi believes are all souls on our own journey of lessons and learning and that Andrew was and is on his own journey just as all of us are.
“We are eternal beings and even though our physical relationship ended in May, it continues on. I have found that I am much deeper and have a profound respect for life that I didn’t have before Drew died and I thank him for that parting gift.”
The Respite will host Hope for the Holidays Dec 10 at 7pm. This free event is an enriching evening of poetry, readings and songs to acknowledge losses and grief during the holiday season and a celebration of hope and inspiration. Info: TheRespite.org.
Tips for Coping with Holiday Grief
If certain family traditions—such as carving the turkey or leading the family in song—make you uncomfortable this year, don’t do them. You can always pick them up later.
If you are grieving too deeply and celebrating is not an option, remember the 3Cs: choice, communication and compromise. Give yourself permission to choose what specific things you want to do, and who you want to be with. Communicate your thoughts and feelings about those choices with loved ones, especially those also affected by the loss. Finally, be open to compromising with family and friends on all issues.
Instead of trying to push back memories of the person you are grieving this holiday, ask friends and family members to share recollections with you in photographs, stories and mementos.
Above all, trust that you will make it through the holidays this year. Even with the differences, you will find the experience bittersweet. Trust that while the season will be tinged with many emotions, you will be able to celebrate more fully in the future.
Source: The Good Grief Center