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Coping with loss during the holiday season

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Most of us experience the holidays as times of joy, but also as times of stress. We are pressured to create the perfect Thanksgiving or the most meaningful Hanukkah. We never succeed, but that doesn't stop us from trying year after year. For people who are newly bereaved, the holidays can sometimes be disheartening and even debilitating. Some of us pack away the Christmas ornaments after our spouse dies and say, "Never again." Others of us deny our pain and engage in our usual traditions as if nothing has changed. Either way, our grief will be with us.

Recognizing the fact that nothing will ever be the same allows us to plan ahead. We do not have to anticipate every holiday as being "bad," but we can anticipate an intensity of emotion that may leave us feeling fragile. It is a time to be very gentle with ourselves. Our friends will want to do what is best for us and we can help them by being honest about what we need. Instead of trying to please other people, we need to follow our hearts and do what feels safe and nurturing for us.

My partner died three days before Thanksgiving, four weeks before Christmas, five weeks before New Year's Eve. While still deep in shock from Jon's sudden death, I was faced with turkey dinners, Christmas festivities, and ringing in the New Year. My precious friends called constantly with invitations, and the idea that I preferred to be home alone instead of enjoying the spirit of the season was inconceivable to many of them. So, I tried. I attended a solstice party and the Christmas program at the school. The party is a blur, but I do remember sitting through the skits and the singalong, hunched over on my metal folding chair, with tears streaming down my face and a pain in my heart that felt capable of killing me. By the time I got home I was in such physical and emotional pain that I literally had to crawl into the house. It was the last time I accepted an invitation to please someone else. I learned the hard way that if I ignored my inner wisdom I would pay a painful price.

I could not celebrate Christmas in the usual ways, but I longed for the comfort of the familiar. I've always enjoyed sending and receiving Christmas cards, so the way I celebrated Christmas that year was to tape the cards I received around the living room windows. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

One way of coping during the holidays is by creating new traditions. We can use grief rituals to honor and remember our loved ones and to help us heal. Rituals give us a chance to step away from the busyness and commercialism of the holidays, and create a space for sacredness and reflection. Rituals are not about closure; they are about acceptance. Choose a ritual or rituals that have meaning for each person - one size does not fit all. A ritual may be as simple as buying a beautiful candle and lighting it at times that are special to your loved one's memory, or adding an ornament to the Christmas tree every year in memory of your loved one. Some other ideas may include asking that a service, reading or song be dedicated to him or her at your place of worship; hiking to a place that was special to you and your loved one, and leaving a flower or just sitting in meditation for a moment; taking time with friends and family to share stories and memories of your loved one.

November 23rd marked the fifth anniversary of my partner's death. I'd been invited to the Eagle Wings Community Church that morning to accept a donation to Hospice & Home Care of Juneau and to give a talk about our bereavement services. After much thought, I decided to begin my presentation by sharing the significance of the day. Shaking and teary, I told my story. When I looked into the faces before me, I saw love and I saw anguish. Behind me, the sun was shining on the Gastineau Channel and a huge flock of birds was continuously turning and wheeling in unison. In that moment, I felt truly blessed by the beauty of the day and by the deep compassion of the congregation. I was glad I'd listened to my heart and shared my story. It was the perfect way to honor the day.

• Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator at Hospice & Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.



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