The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


November 20, 2011

When it’s Cold Inside: Grief and the holidays

Death. Divorce. Disability. Disease. Within life’s alphabet, there exists a fair share of “d” words before the g-force brought on by grief — a word describing emotions so powerful, they have the ability to affect physically (exhaustion, headaches, sleeplessness), emotionally (irritability, depression, memory gaps) and spiritually (anger at God).

Grief is a sudden change in circumstances and a fear of what lies ahead. It is a Land of Lost Reality, where individuals often long for the impossibility of “the way it used to be.”

In particular, when a loved one dies, or when divorce separates a family, the holidays (reserved for merriment and cheer, when being labeled as a Grinch is a distinct possibility) can be a particularly challenging time in dealing with loss on any level.

“The Kübler-Ross stages of grief were written about a person who was dying. They are the same stages people go through after any serious loss,” explains Harold Dobbins, social service coordinator and bereavement coordinator for Hospice of Southern West Virginia. “Typically, the first reaction is denial — where the person thinks, ‘No, this can’t be happening!’”

At the time of interview, on the eve of the largest formal memorial service Hospice holds, gathering nearly 300 individuals to honor their loved ones lost over the past year, Dobbins considers the coursing path introduced by grief. It’s a tour he docents daily.

Much of the difficulty that follows going through the holidays after death or divorce is tied up in the loss of traditions.

“It’s due to the fact our society is very family-based,” Dobbins explains. “Holidays are the times when families get together for Christmas, for Hanukkah. There are fun times, gifts, laughter, food. When you take a person who has suffered a loss, there’s a lot of tradition and there are a lot of memories.”

The reality is, to the newly grieving, Christmas season 2011 may be the worst Christmas of their lives, no matter what well-meaning friends do to try and pull them out of the mire.

“Understand everyone grieves differently. There’s not a black-and-white plan to get you through holidays. It has to be about you — what you feel comfortable doing. You can’t be afraid to tell people ‘no,’” says Dobbins.

Bow Out Gracefully

“If you’re invited to a Christmas dinner you’ve been to for the last 30 years, you may not want to go to that dinner again. It’s really important for you to communicate and say you appreciate the invitation, but you don’t feel comfortable coming this year,” Dobbins suggests.

Leave the Bootstrap Pulling to Santa

“If I can keep them busy, they won’t hurt as bad,” Dobbins says, defining the underlying premise loved ones of the grieving hold to in insisting the widowed or newly divorced participate in all the reindeer games.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, sucking it up and snapping out of it are self-prompts ineffective to those in the active grieving process. Grief is a journey without an ETA. It can take six months. It can take six years.


Linda and Craig Spooner are both acquainted with the same grief — that of a relationship lost. In Linda’s case, it was her 31-year marriage. She has healed from the pain, but she hasn’t forgotten what it was like.

“Everybody says, ‘I was as flat as a pancake,’ well — I was the pancake batter.”

Linda sought a way to overcome her grief, when she discovered a program in Princeton called DivorceCare. The Christian-based principles presented assisted her tremendously in dealing with the devastation. Later, when she met Craig Spooner, a divorced Massachusetts pastor who would become her second husband, she told him she felt called to the program as her ministry.

After moving back to West Virginia 3 1/2 years ago, Linda and Craig transplanted the DivorceCare program they began and led together in their church. Held at the Christian Resource Center on 300 N. Kanawha St., Beckley, the program moves groups of divorced people battling the loneliness, anger and depression attending the end of their marriages into healing and rebuilding their lives.

“A lot of people say ‘you'll get over it.’ Divorced people do not want to hear those things. I know people mean well, but in my own time is when I’m gonna do it,” Linda says, regarding the highly individualized healing process the divorced go through.

“Sometimes, I don’t want to keep on going. It’s OK to feel bad. If you feel bad and grieve over something you had, then that something was worth grieving.”

The multi-session, faith-based, non-denominational program presents 13 relevant, standalone topics over 13 weeks. There are experts weighing in, coupled with the “been there” experience of group leaders like Craig and Linda, along with others’ individual experiences.

Now, the Spooners have added an additional support group program, called GriefShare, to their ministry. GriefShare, which like DivorceCare originated in North Carolina as a faith-based platform for healing, operates within a network of thousands of grief recovery support groups meeting around the world. The GriefShare goal is to help people in communities deal with the death of a loved one.

One GriefShare graduate remembers the holiday after losing her husband.

“We always made homemade gnocchi and pineapple-filled cookies for Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, we’d take the whole family out to breakfast.” She admits the first Christmas after her husband’s passing, she gave up feeling responsible for the breakfast tradition, saying, “OK, guys. It’s on you now, …”

A special “Surviving the Holidays” seminar will happen Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. at the Christian Resource Center, for the divorced and featuring a separate group for widows and widowers to develop strategies to make it sanely through the “most wonderful time of the year.”

“When you have something that tears you apart from everything you know, from traditions, you have to plan to succeed. Planning is so important to grieving through the holidays,” Linda states.

To pre-register for “Surviving The Holidays”, call 304-763-3424 or e-mail . Participants can expect a “cheerful atmosphere,” according to Linda, and cost is just $6 per person.

Both a DivorceCare program and GriefShare program are presently under way, DivorceCare meets Tuesday nights, and GriefShare Thursday nights, both at 7 p.m. at the Christian Resource Center, now through Dec. 15. The next class is scheduled to begin Feb. 21. Cost to participants for the full 13-week program is $17, meant to defray the expense of workbooks and materials. More information on the programs is available online at and .

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