While the death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult times, the holidays can compound our sense of loss and isolation. When we're experiencing the pain of grief, the last thing we want to do is participate in any kind of holiday celebration. We want the pain to end, and we can’t imagine being around others at a time that is supposed to be full of joy when we are so burdened with sorrow.
This is a normal way to feel, but since we can’t cut out the calendar from late October through early Januaryof the next year, it might be helpful to modify our plans, and most especially to take good care of ourselves.
Consider the following suggestions:
I will always remember my hospice patient’s dog, Jack. Jack was a medium-sized, furry mutt, with all the friendliness of a well-loved and trained dog. My patient was a man who was deeply loved by family and friends... and his dog, Jack.
As the patient was dying, Jack was lying awake with his head on his front legs, under the patient’s bed. The family told me Jack had been there over 24 hours and was refusing to come out to eat or drink. Jack and his human friend were inseparable in life. And Jack stayed there, under the patient’s bed, until the funeral home arrived.
In our fast-paced, success-based society, people often feel stigmatized for the need to seek out counseling support. There’s this expectation that people will “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” and the desire for help is deemed a failure. Men in particular are taught early on to withhold their emotions, and those who remain stoic in the face of adversity are considered heroic. Although we each carry a unique perspective, there are certain universal experiences that alter the course of our lives and inevitably affect our way of thinking.
In my family of origin, I saw illness from an early age. My sister is developmentally challenged and she also has severe epilepsy. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was in my early 20s. This was a prolonged illness that took its toll over the last 20 years of his life. My whole life I witnessed my mother as the caregiver for my sister, and then later for my father. After my father passed, my husband and I found an excellent group home for my sister. We did this in hopes to give my mother a much-needed break from the role of caregiver, and to allow my sister to live as independently as she possibly could. Finally, I would have my mother back as her relaxed and fun-loving self. Finally, she would be free to have more enjoyment and freedom in her life!
Something unexpected occurred, however.
Children can, and do, grieve and children process their grief through play. Two concepts that my training has taught me and two concepts that I have witnessed firsthand countless times as a child life specialist. Yet, somehow, these two concepts became more real to me than they ever were as I sat with a five-year-old sibling of a three-year-old hospice patient in her backyard, providing support as she learned that a frog she caught and had been caring for had died.
She talked about playing with him the day before, how he seemed to really enjoy the dirt, and how sad she was that he had died. She cried as she talked about how much she would miss him; kissed him as she talked about saying goodbye. We picked flowers, prepared his resting place, and said what we would miss about him. Throughout the interaction, she discussed the parallels between her brother’s anticipated death and the death of her frog. She cried for both as she attempted to reconcile what was to come.
The winter season is one of dichotomous feelings and expectations. With a flux of holidays, considered by many to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” there also comes the sadness mirroring a period of loss, change, darkness, and cold. For those who have experienced a recent death of someone they love, there are constant reminders of traditions and memories, but also of the empty place at the family table. As a grief therapist with JourneyCare throughout the past three years, my calendar grows ever fuller as December rolls around. There is also palpable relief in those I counsel when the holidays have passed us by.
As I am sure most of you know, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and the author of "Lean In," lost her husband in a tragic accident. Since her loss, she has made several online posts including one that talks about Option B, "the stage in which you redefine and reclaim your life after the one you thought you'd have is cruelly
My late husband, Tom, loved football. While Tom liked baseball―he was a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan―by August, the Cubs were almost always non-contenders, so it was time for the football season to begin. He really loved the Bears. In fact, according to him, the biggest fight in our marriage related to me cheering for the Packers and him cheering for the Bears. After that fight, I realized I loved him more than the Packers, so I became a Bears fan, too. And even though Tom has been dead for over five years, I still root for the Bears―much to the dismay of my Packer fan family.