Grief can enrich, not overwhelm, the holidays

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

It's that time of year. Chores and social activities proliferate, friends and family are in our thoughts, and lights, colors, and joyful music add a level of intensity to even everyday activities.

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"People usually have strong associations with holidays-both good and bad," said Kim Poole, program director and chaplain for Hospice and Home Care of Juneau. "For some of us, every holiday is magical. But the magic may be dimmed if Grandad is not in his usual seat, or a parent has moved to the Pioneers' Home, or a child's bright laughter is no longer with us. For others, holidays have always been difficult. Celebrations around us can resurrect difficult memories, and they may intensify regrets that we never were able to make these happy times. We wonder 'What if we'd taken a different approach?' or 'What if I'd tried a little harder?'"

What's worse is that so many winter holidays come together, Poole said. There's winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan. Then the New Year. Then Valentine's Day, Easter, and Memorial Day. "In Juneau, it's the darkest time of the year," she said, "yet these special times keep coming up. If we've lost someone we're used to sharing them with, we keep getting our feet knocked out from under us every three or four weeks."

Feeling sad during the holidays is appropriate when there's been a loss or a big change in your life, Poole said. "But it's not just a matter of life and death. Its life and change, and things are a lot easier if we can learn to accept change."

Poole suggests a number of steps people can take to help turn the holidays from a time of sadness to a time of gratitude and recovery. "Be easy on yourself," she suggests. "Don't feel you have to re-create the wonders of the past. Take extra time to honor those moments when you feel down or, as my grandmother used to say, when you're 'feeling blue.' Take time to be there in that moment, but also set a time when it will be over. Have a cup of tea, then go and pick up a project you enjoy. Or take a walk, and decide that when you get back you'll move on.

"Helping others can help you get past deep sadness, too, and there are lots of ways to do that here in Juneau. There's the Salvation Army, and the Glory Hole, and the Angel Trees in many of the churches, as well as our Light Up A Life Tree at Nugget Mall. These are all ways you can reach out to others-as a memory or in honor of someone you loved.

"Don't be afraid to talk with family about how you feel. Just because someone is gone doesn't mean you can't speak about them. Telling family stories often helps fill the emptiness.

"Keep a little of the old if it's something important. In the Passover ritual, which comes in the spring, the meal includes bitter herbs, which symbolize the bitter lives the Hebrews had as slaves in Egypt. Life's full of bitter flavors-they're a symbol and remembrance of what has been. But you might also adopt a new tradition, honoring someone you loved and renewing your connection with them."

Long-time Hospice volunteer Mary McDowell, wrote about the tradition represented in Hospice and Home Care's holiday Light Up a Life celebration. "I've come to think of the Light Up a Life tree as a little 'rest station for the heart,'" she wrote. "It's fun to watch people who have purchased stars stopping by the mall to find them on the tree. Everyone seems to enjoy seeing their ornament hanging there along with the hundreds of others honoring friends and family members. Some take a few minutes to share stories or happy memories, or to talk about a loved one's dying days, or how grateful they are for the help their families received from Hospice, either in Juneau or another community." Other traditions might include lighting memorial candles each day, or simply offering a dinner prayer or toast to a deceased loved one.

"Holidays are a difficult time for any loss, whether a family member is overseas in the armed forces, or someone is incarcerated while their family is at home, or even if a family member is living far away or has to work during the holidays," Poole added. No matter where the loss or emptiness comes from, during this holiday time, remember is it okay to feel the emptiness for a while. Try, however, to reach out to someone if the emptiness becomes too great. And remember that all of this change provides us an opportunity to grow and to change ourselves. The Winter Holidays seek to bring life and light into the darkest days of winter. Take time to appreciate change and the promise of spring that follows the winter.

• Hospice and Home Care of Juneau is a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith. Marge Hermans Osborn is a Hospice and Home Care of Juneau volunteer.

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