Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grief and the holidays

With holiday music blasting away everywhere you turn, colorful lights blinking on lavish yard displays and shoppers bustling -- or shoving -- in stores, it's easy to forget that for some the holidays are a time of deep loneliness or sorrow. This was brought home to me recently when friends lost a son just as the holiday season was about to go into full swing. It was an unexpected and tragic death, which left both parents devastated. Now these two wonderful people are facing a once-favorite season without their only son. It's almost impossible to know what to say to them.

There are plenty of platitudes -- your son wouldn't want you to grieve during this season you all love so much, you have other children who need you -- but I have no idea how you do either of those things when your heart is heavy with grief. I do, however, have some ideas about what those of us who love people in such a situation may be able to do.

First, invite them to your celebrations. They may decline, but it will help them to know that you're thinking of them and that they have options.

Second, if they usually do a lot of decorating, but just don't seem to have the will to get started, offer to bring some friends together to do it for them.

Third, if they typically do a lot of baking, encourage them to come to your home and help you with your baking, instead. It may be easier in another kitchen and it could start a whole new tradition.

Fourth, if it seems appropriate, suggest other new traditions that may brighten their spirits. After my dad died, my cousin and I went to New York for a few days right before Christmas. The amazing lights, a Kenny Rogers old-fashioned Christmas show, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, all of it helped to take our mind off of our loss. We've gone back several times since then and it never fails to make the season merrier.

Fifth, if your friend has just lost a spouse, he or she may feel awkward about going places alone during the holidays. Offer to pick them up for church or for a neighborhood party.

Last and most important, do not shy away from spending time with them or making those frequent calls just to say hello. It so easy to tell ourselves we don't know what to say after tragedy strikes, when the reality is that reaching out is all that matters.

Obviously, we have to take our cues from the people who are grieving. We can't be offended or back off just because we're rebuffed. And if grief seems to be evolving into depression, don't just dismiss it as part of the process. Make sure that they get help.

If you've had to deal with a recent loss during the holidays, please share with us the things that helped you get through those difficult days. What did your friends do that helped the most? Or if you've reached out to someone in a special way, tell us what you did.

Meantime, I wish you much joy, not only during the holidays, but for the coming year.

Sherryl Woods

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Blogger karende said...

It’s difficult. My husband died last month, but it was expected - not by him, but his doc and I knew. He’d been totally bed-ridden since last December, and I took care of him at home until very nearly the end. He was convinced that if the docs just got his medications adjusted, he’d be fine, and went on making plans for tomorrow, next week, next summer, next year. After all, an assortment of docs had been telling him for over 15 years he’d be lucky to live out whichever year he was in, and he always did, and didn’t see why this time would be any different. After all, he hadn’t died before, so obviously they didn’t know what they were talking about! So in a way, I was one of the lucky ones. I knew it was coming, and I did my grieving over the past year, watching him slowly waste away. The only thing close to surprising was how fast he went at the end.

What helped me, overall, was the support and caring of a few friends. The ones that mattered most were ones I’ve known forever, it seems, but they live thousands of miles away, and it was all through email and a few phone calls. But where we live - where I still live, though not for long - there just isn’t anyone. His family, what there is of it, lives here, and they couldn’t be bothered to come visit or even return phone calls. And they were sooo surprised to hear he’d finally died, no matter that I’d told them when we moved here seven years ago because of his health, that he was dying and needed to be on a transplant list.

The neighbors, that’s another story. They were always ready to ask him for help, when he was able, and they all said “Anything you want, anything we can do, just ask.” The first week one of them was very kind and did drive me around [I can’t drive any more, I’m visually impaired] quite a bit. And they had me over for Thanksgiving dinner, which was also nice, because the whole family knew all about what had happened and there weren’t any awkward silences, nor was I ever made to feel like a fifth wheel.

Now, though, the same people who said “just ask” don’t answer their phones [caller ID], don’t answer their doors [they look out the window to see who’s there first], don’t return calls. Now that I’m getting on with getting on, I’ve become somehow invisible.

I guess my advice would be this:

[A] If you’ve been in the habit of being in and out regularly, keep it up. It makes things feel a bit more normal, even if it is depressing to the in-and-outer. Eventually, it will get better.

[B] Don’t go too far overboard offering to do things, if you won’t be able to keep up with it later. Of course, there will be times when people just can’t face driving themselves or going anywhere alone [or maybe at all, like to a mall decorated for a holiday], and that’s different. But as a rule, don’t try to make up for everything yourself, because sooner or later, you will resent each other - one for making what seem to be unreasonable demands, and the other for feeling guilted into giving in to them.

December 18, 2007 12:03 AM  
Blogger Sherryl said...

Karende, I am so very sorry for your loss. You've raised some really good points about creating unrealistic expectations. People do tend to drift back into their normal routines and, it seems inevitably that happens just when the person grieving really hits a wall and starts to recognize that the loss is permanent. At first there are so many demands, so many things to deal with, that nothing seems quite real. It's later when everything kicks in.

So, I agree, space out those offers to help. And don't assume that the grieving is over just because it's been a few months. Continue to stop by from time to time, make a call, issue an invitation, but vary the pattern, so that these are welcome, thoughtful surprises, which may be less likely to create a pattern of expectations.

December 18, 2007 8:28 AM  

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