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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