Heirloom ornaments, twinkling lights and festive wrapping paper can help set the scene for a magical holiday season. But the idealized notions that people carry around in their heads about the holidays rarely happen.
Indeed, no one really experiences the perfect holidays, and the season can be painful or difficult for those grieving the loss of a loved one or experiencing some kind of stress.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘Everybody, but our family, is having the Waltons’ Christmas, or the Norman Rockwell Christmas, or the Currier and Ives Christmas,” said Grace Terry, founder of Grief Resolution Resources of Tampa. “Here’s the truth: Nobody has the Waltons’ Christmas, except the Waltons.”
The holidays can be challenging for everyone, Terry said. At best, they may have peaceful and joyful moments, or perhaps, even hours.
“Rarely is there a joyful, peaceful full day, I’m afraid,” she said. “Everybody has some stress. Everybody has some memories of past holidays – again, hopefully everybody has some positive memories, but you know, everybody also has some bittersweet memories, and some memories that are not so happy and joyful.”
Any time there is a death of a loved one, whether it is a family member or dear friend, the first year after the death can be very challenging, Terry said. As the holidays approach, if the family plans to celebrate together, it’s good to have the conversation in advance of the family gathering. That way, “people aren’t taken by surprise and wondering, ‘Oh, what should I do?’
“People will be less awkward or nervous, if we can mention ahead of time, ‘I may want to talk about missing mom,’ or ‘I may want to talk about mom’s famous Christmas cookies, or dad’s snoring when he falls asleep’” after the holiday meal, she said.
Talking it out ahead of time can help reduce feelings of embarrassment or shame about how to handle the absence of the loved one at the holidays, Terry said. She encourages people to have the conversation, and that it’s OK to mention the person’s name who died, it’s OK if a few tears are shed, and everyone remembers a loved one who is not with them this year.
“Nobody has to be embarrassed or ashamed if we tell our favorite story of the deceased loved one, or we mention ‘We surely do miss him,’” Terry said. “If somebody becomes tearful, that’s one way of honoring the deceased.”
By talking in advance of holiday gatherings, family members may find out that they want to take a different approach this year, Terry said.
“A lot of people make assumptions about what everybody else wants without even asking,” she said. “The majority of the people in (the) family might be really wishing that we could really downsize it this year, but everybody’s thinking we’ve got to do what we’ve always done.”
The grief counselor also encourages people to honor their own feelings about how they want to celebrate — or not celebrate — the holidays. Sometimes people think they have to continue the traditions they’ve always had, even if they’re not up to it, Terry said.
It’s also important for people to remember that they are not obliged to do something they don’t want to do, just to live up to others’ expectations.
“They can take the year off, or they can scale back and streamline to a bare minimum,” she said. “The world will keep right on turning. If it just feels like a huge burden and a chore, don’t do it. Even if you’ve done it the same way all of your life, it’s OK to do it differently this year if you want to do it differently.”
Traditions are wonderful, Terry said, but “sometimes they just need to grow and evolve, and deal with present reality.”
It’s also important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another.
“People do grieve differently,” Terry said.
Friends of the bereaved might also be at a loss as to how to help. Terry says to tell them they know that for a lot of people, the first holiday season after the death of a loved one can be painful and difficult.
“How are you feeling about the winter holidays that are coming up?” Terry suggests. “What do you think would be best for you, and how can I support that?
“Then, shut up and listen.”
For those who are struggling with grief, Terry advises that they reach out for support, and never feel embarrassed by it.
“Everybody needs support all of the time,” she said. “When we’re grieving, we need extra.”
Terry organizes sessions called Grief Café where people who are struggling with grief can share in an informal setting. When people don’t work through their grief, it can manifest itself in substance abuse, broken relationships and spiritual despair, Terry said.
She also had another bit of advice for those who want to help the bereaved during the holidays: “Practice kindness and tolerance in the spirit of the season.”
Grief Café is a relaxed small group conversation about loss and grief facilitated by a professional that meets the third Thursday of the month from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., in the board room of at Cooper Financial Services, 5420 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., in Land O’ Lakes.
Upcoming sessions are set for Dec. 19 and Jan. 16.
The groups generally are kept to 10 people or fewer. There is no charge, but donations are accepted. If you’d like to attend, please reserve a spot by 5 p.m., the day before the session, by calling (727) 487-3207.
Misconceptions about Grief
These statements are false, but generally believed to be true:
• The best way to manage grief is to stay busy.
• Tears are a sign of weakness and loss of control.
• Expressing grief shows a lack of faith.
• Time heals all wounds.
• The goal of bereavement care is to help people get over grief as quickly as possible.
• No one can really help a grieving person resolve his or her grief.
• Only people with advanced specialized formal professional education and a professional license can help someone with his or her grief.
• If we see someone who has recently experienced a traumatic loss, it is best not to mention the loss because we might upset them.
• Children do not grieve because they don’t understand what’s happening.
– Source: Grace Terry of Grief Resolution Resources of Tampa