Ask people how they feel about the holidays, and you’ll get a variety of reactions. It may be because, even when things are going well, the holidays can present additional demands that increase stress levels and anxiety. If you’ve recently suffered the loss of a loved one, that ordinary holiday stress can quickly turn into a complex, overwhelming, exhausting endurance race.
After a loved one dies, it automatically becomes a year of “firsts.” The first anniversary of every event no longer experienced or celebrated with the person who is now glaringly absent. What was once a reliable or comforting ritual may suddenly feel like an emotional roller coaster of unwelcome change. Grief triggers may be seemingly everywhere: old movies, familiar scents, a favorite song on a playlist. For many, the initial reaction is to avoid and distract. Although it’s a natural response, over time it becomes increasingly ineffective at moving through the grief.
Perhaps when coping with grief during the holidays, instead of connecting with friends, family and others to primarily distract from grief, consider a choice to deliberately “include” the loved one who is no longer present, with intention.
I look forward to our Tree of Lights celebrations every year. My personal experience with grief and loss has been eased by participating not only as a staff member, but a grieving person in my own right. Let me share a story with you ...
In the past 18 years, I have had the privilege of providing grief support to family members of hospice patients as well as members of the community at-large. Little did I know when I began my connection to JourneyCare as a volunteer over 20 years ago, I would become part of one of the most compassionate organizations that serves people at the most critical juncture in their lives. What was once a small agency now reaches across 10 counties in the Chicago region.
The loss of a loved one turns your world upside down and, for a teenager, this loss can be especially bewildering. In my role as a bereavement counselor, I talk with teens that often feel like there is no way out, like the light of their lives has been diminished and they can become immersed in the stress of their own feelings. It is overwhelming for anyone, but especially for a teen finding their place in the world.
Camp Courage is JourneyCare’s bereavement camp and activities for children and teens, ages 6-13, who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
When I took it on, I assumed being a Camp Courage volunteer would be tough. I knew that spending a week with kids ages 6-13 who had recently experienced a significant death would challenge my emotional wherewithal. Given my career working with the juvenile justice system and the skills I developed in that role, I decided I could handle it. But I learned, until you are there, you can’t truly anticipate the reality and rewards of Camp Courage.
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.
His wife died. He is now a single parent to two young children. His daughter comforts him. She hugs him tight: “It’s okay, daddy.”
Other families in the room acknowledge, they are just like us.
Just like us, this family lost someone very dear and special to them. Just like us, they grieve. Just like us, they journey forward.
The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, especially as winter and the holiday season approaches, it can be challenging to find that “invincible summer” through one’s anguish and tears. When burdened with sadness and pain, how do we find that which comforts and calms us? I believe the foundation of the resilience of which Camus writes is hope.
A total solar eclipse is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events. In those brief enchanting minutes, the natural becomes the supernatural. The solar eclipse of 2017 was an incredible visual spectacle that many JourneyCare staff members shared as we gathered in The Waud Family Healing Garden and at our other locations. Not only did we share protective glasses so everyone safely experienced the eclipse firsthand, but we also took the time to meditate together focusing on our personal and communal growth.
Camp Courage is JourneyCare's annual grief support camp that helps children and teens cope with the death of a loved one while having summer fun. Entirely supported by charitable donations, the program helps campers deal with their loss while they enjoy art, music, sports and other activities with friends.
I cannot begin to explain how remarkable Camp Courage is for everyone involved in just a quick blog post. My intention here is to convey what Camp Courage meant to me as a camp counselor this summer, and what I hope the kids can take from camp to use in the future to help cope with the loss of a loved one. The most wonderful thing I observed was how these kids recovered the hope and confidence they may have initially lost along with their loved one.
April is Counseling Awareness Month.
Some say they don’t want counseling. Some say they don’t need counseling. Personally, I'm a big believer in counseling. In bereavement. In seeking some sort of help. Some sort of support. Some sort of release.
When you lose a loved one, your life is turned upside down. Your mind is tired. Your heart is broken. Help is available. Help can be sought. And dare I say, help should be sought.
I fell in love with my beautiful wife at the age of eighteen, and we dated for one year. We spent eight years apart, until fate brought us back together. At the age of 30, she took her last breath with us.