Coping with grief during the holidays

July 1, 1993

Coping with grief during the holidays

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The holidays are a time for celebrations, but for those who have recently lost a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Pastor John Froiland, Hospice chaplain for the Visiting Nurses Association, who also serves at Rockford Memorial Hospital, offers some tips for getting through this period.

At the holiday season, he says, “our expectations are so high that when we grieve, it makes it seem even worse. We get the feeling that we have to be joyous and festive because that’s what the songs tell us. That’s part of the season and why we celebrate it. But if we don’t feel that joyous and happy, we feel there’s something wrong with us,” he noted.

“We could be just having a regular year, and the expectations are so joyous, but sometimes we aren’t… If you are in a group, you feel so much worse because it appears that everyone around you is being happy. The healthy thing is to grieve the loss and talk with a person who recognizes what was unique about the relationship.” This applies even in the loss of a pet, he added.

Each person has to find their own way and do what feels right to them, Rev. Froiland pointed out. “Some people want to think things away, but being sad is part of the process that ultimately brings us a sense of peace. Some people do give donations in the name of a loved one.”

He also noted, “This time of year, there are so many opportunities to worship and sing Christmas carols. For some people that is very comforting, but for other people, being in those situations like going to church, it is a reminder of their own emptiness. For some people, it gives them peace, and for others, it just opens up the wounds again. Sometimes it just reminds you of the person you wish was with you, and they’re not there. You feel their absence more keenly at a time like that. The best thing is to acknowledge it—not that it’s an easy thing to do, but on some level, acknowledge the loss and admit it to yourself; acknowledge the value of the relationship. Sometimes taking to somebody about that will help. Say, ‘we used to bake cookies together’ or ‘we used to do this or that.’”

He recalled some personal experiences he has had in counseling. “Over the years, some people have told me, ‘Oh, I can’t go to church.’ Part of that is seeing their community of friends, and they don’t want to relive the death. It’s just too painful to do that, [but] later on, they do start going again.”

He offered two suggestions for people who are dealing with loss over the holidays. “The first holiday season without someone is always the most difficult. It gets a little bit easier the next few times.” The second suggestion is, “People will have some kind of ritual. They light a candle on Christmas, or they give [a donation] in memory of the person. Maybe the first year, the space at the table is empty, and to acknowledge the fact that it’s different, they set a place. Sometimes it’s too painful for people, but by doing something, you feel like you have some power. For some people, writing in a journal is helpful. For other people, it’s talking out loud. Another thing I tell people who are grieving is to be good to themselves.”

Rev. Froiland reminds us that some people think they should “get over” the situation, but it takes time, and for each person the process is different. “Say ‘this is hard and sad’ and acknowledge it. Pretending or ignoring, in the long run, is more painful. It’s not facing something that’s there. It just takes longer to heal.”

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