The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 3, 2013

When holidays hurt

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— It may be an empty chair at the table, a song the person sang, a favorite Yuletide activity. Holiday traditions can trip up those recovering from the loss of a significant person in their lives, says Jewell Field, a Hospice of Southern West Virginia bereavement support specialist. “Especially if it’s the first holiday after the loved one has passed, it’s a very difficult time.”

Maybe Dad was the one who always put the turkey in the oven. Maybe Mom gave out gifts from underneath the tree. “There are certain roles that person may have done for the family. As counselors, we encourage families to keep some of the old traditions, but to make new ones as well. Maybe the oldest son sits in the father’s place and takes over those responsibilities this year,” she suggests.

Field has personal experience in the area of grieving. As a go-to person for family and friends losing their loved ones to life-limiting illness at Hospice, she is also a leader of community bereavement groups, offered to families who have suffered loss, with or without Hospice services being involved.

Field also had to make a new tradition within her family when her dad passed away. “My brother wasn’t ready to sit where Dad always sat at the table. So we put Dad’s picture there. After prayer, there was weeping, but then it turned to the joyous memories we had of him. We were able to remember him our own way around the table.”

Another option, she suggests, is to have dinner or the celebration at another location than what was traditional for the family. “We also tell them to have a plan for when it all falls apart,” Field explains. “Have someone you can call when it gets overwhelming and let them know you need their support.”

Depression is higher within the general population around the holidays. Unable to compete with the seemingly mandatory joy levels, many succumb to unrealistic, ideal expectations for the season. For those in the active grieving process, the shopping, the parties and the merriment can all be overwhelming.

“Their tendency is to isolate themselves. We encourage them not to do that. If they are being invited to get-togethers, they can say ‘no,’ but we ask them to pick and choose at least a couple to say ‘yes’ to. Isolation makes depression more prevalent.”

Another way to find a measure of happiness during the holidays is to put away things that stress and find what brings joy and peace. “Instead of worrying about getting gifts, maybe get gift cards or ask someone to help you shop this year. You might even want to make a donation to a charity in the person’s name. Take care of yourself this season, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Field suggests.

She also encourages journaling by writing down feelings for the day, getting both the frustrations and any joys down in ink, taking care to be more concerned about getting it out than getting it right. “Keeping a journal is a way to let them express their feelings. It is not to be shared with anyone. We tell them it’s for their eyes only.”

Annette Jennings, also a bereavement support specialist at HSWV, has suggestions for friends and family of someone grieving during the holidays.

“In the beginning after you lose someone, there is an outpouring of cards and food and visitors coming in. Then all of that abruptly stops.” Once the flow of visitors stops, says Jennings, that’s when the real opportunity to be a friend begins. “Be specific in how you are going to help the person who has lost someone. Don’t ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’ Instead, say, ‘I’m going to come by and pick you up to get your hair done in about an hour,’ or ‘I’m going to come by and walk your dog.’ Things you might think are little could be a big help to someone who is grieving.”

Trying to fix the grieving person is futile, says Jennings. “You can’t fix them, but you can empower them to help themselves.” Being present to listen, not offer advice, means more than the compulsion to wrap problems up with a tidy bow. Losing someone is often messy, and the grieving people may need to tell their story, multiple times, just to get it out and to be heard.

“Even if you are at a loss for words — just to be there, physically present, to listen. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, telling it is a healing process for them,” Jennings says.

Field adds that the tendency to fix or resolve quickly is a common scenario among children toward the surviving parent. “Sometimes, they see the parent grieving and their instinct is to get them back to what they used to enjoy as soon as possible. They may not have the physical strength to do what they used to. The best thing we can do is to spend our time.” Resist the urge to encourage activities early on in the grieving process that the person enjoyed with the deceased. “Really, they just need a quiet, supportive presence around them. You will know when the bereaved is ready to take that next baby step and get back into things.”


Coping with the Holidays, Hospice of Southern West Virginia’s free three-week bereavement group, begins from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Wickham Administrative Office Building, with an evening class option from 6 to 8 p.m. at Doug and Lucy Bowers Hospice House. You do not have to be a Hospice care recipient or family member to enroll. Call 304-255-6404 to sign up; registration for this class ends Nov. 8.