by Kate Shunney
Christmas and winter holidays are portrayed as festive, bright and jolly times to celebrate and enjoy life. But the holidays can look and feel different for someone who has lost a loved one, is in the midst of major illness, or for someone who has suffered a traumatic event that’s brought significant change to their lives.
Navigating the balance between celebration and grief is unique for everyone. The pressure to participate and gather together as family can be an extra stress for those grieving.
Grief Counselor Deanna Rudy of Hospice of the Panhandle said acknowledging the change in life is an important step in making this holiday season manageable for families.
When looking ahead toward Christmas Eve and day, or other special holidays this season, it can be helpful to make a plan for how things will unfold.
“It’s best not to pretend,” said Rudy.
Talking with family members about holiday traditions is important, so children and spouses and siblings can be prepared for how this year will be different without a special person or modified to accommodate someone going through major illness or injury.
Rudy said communication is key.
She teaches a “Grief in the Holidays” workshop for Hospice that lays out a roadmap for the weeks ahead.
“It’s about how we ‘C’ our way through the holidays,” said Rudy.
The first C is “choosing.”
“We get to choose our activities and who want to spend time with,” said Rudy.
If decorating a home has been an important tradition, a family can choose to continue to do that, or modify how much they want to decorate, keeping in mind the limitations of their energy or feelings.
“It’s about thinking about the things we like to do, and keeping as much of that as we can,” Rudy said.
The second C is “communicate.”
“Oftentimes a loss affects many people – a spouse, siblings, children. All are feeling the loss but in different ways,” Rudy said.
“Maybe it’s the first Christmas without their father there. What’s going to be hard for them? How are they going to get through that?” she said.
Rudy said checking expectations – being open about what we expect from people – is very important to avoid unintentional hurt all around.
“This is where we really need to communicate. What will still be kept as traditions?” she said.
If grandparents always hosted a holiday dinner, is the surviving spouse still up for that? Or do they need someone else in the family to take that on? If Dad always read the Christmas Eve story, does another member of the family do it or is that tradition set aside?
“There can be disappointment and anger if these aren’t talked about,” Rudy said.
In families, each person has their own particular viewpoint that affects what they expect.
“We’re all sharing in that loss but we’re experiencing it differently,” said Rudy.
The third C is “compromise.” Heading into the holidays, it’s important to consider if there is a way to gather and celebrate in a way that won’t overburden a grieving person or family.
“The thing about grief is it affects all of us – our sleep, appetite, physical health,” Rudy said.
Maybe a large family meal, once prepared by one person, turns into a potluck, or a meal where the food is takeout rather than homecooked.
“Be gentle with each other. That compromise is important,” Rudy said.
That last C of holiday planning is to “commemorate.”
Hospice encourages families to think ahead about how they want to commemorate a loved one missing from the family and holiday events.
“Do we set a place for them at the table, put a photo of them on the mantel, place a special ornament on the tree, or nothing?” Rudy said. “And who’s going to say the holiday prayer?”
There’s no one right way to remember the person who is missing. But communicating the plan is helpful so family members know what to expect and where to step in.
For people experiencing grief without family nearby, Rudy suggests reaching out to churches or other community groups.
“If you’re anticipating being alone and you don’t want to be, engage with the faith community or attend a community dinner nearby,” Rudy said.
“Sometimes we don’t find support from the people we expect, but support crops up in unexpected places,” she said.
Rudy said it’s good time to extend grace to others who may be carrying an emotional burden, and to not take things personally.
Grief is hard and every day is different, she said. Find a place that’s safe to share the feelings that crop up. You don’t get through grief by “muscling through,” Rudy said.
“Grief isn’t a bump in the road. It plucks you off your road and puts you on a totally different road,” she said.
“It’s uncomfortable to talk about it, but it’s even more uncomfortable if you don’t,” Rudy said.
Workshop and resources
“Grief in the Holidays” workshop will be held on Thursday, December 7, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Hospice of the Panhandle offices in Kearneysville. The event is open to professionals and helpers preparing for the holidays. Pre-registration is available through the Hospice website.
This workshop is organized by the Center for Grief Support, which can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 304-264-0406.
Their services – group and individual counseling – are available at no cost to anyone, regardless if they had Hospice services during a loss.