Coping with Grief during the Holidays

Marcus Daly Home Health and Hospice
Doug Peterson, Chaplain
A Service of Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital
1200 Westwood Drive
Hamilton MT 59840
(406) 363-6503

Coping with Grief during the Holidays
Last week, on a trip west to visit family for Thanksgiving, we stopped to see a dear friend whose husband had taken his life a couple of months ago. On the way home, we stopped in Walla Walla to visit a great aunt whose husband died last month after years of debilitating Alzheimer's disease.

I have some friends who spent Thanksgiving out of state. It will likely be their last Thanksgiving with their cancer ridden father.

Last Christmas I visited with my sister, whose son died three years earlier. I asked her if the holidays were still difficult. "It never gets better," she told me.
The holidays can be difficult for families facing serious illness or loss. A major component of the care provided by Marcus Daly Hospice is bereavement support for the first year after the death of a loved one. That first birthday, Christmas, or anniversary can be particularly difficult. It's hard to celebrate Thanksgiving when your heart is broken and empty. Grief is always challenging. During the holidays it can be downright unbearable. That's just how it is.

As hospice chaplain, when I am working with people who have experienced a loss, often the first thing I tell them is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people cry. Some don't. Some people try to keep busy. Some don't like to get out of bed! Some people just want to be alone. Some can't bear the thought of being by themselves. It's okay. It just is.

I'll encourage them to take care of themselves. Get sleep. Go for walks. Or don't. If friends are staying too long, let them know you'd like them to leave now. Thank you cards and holiday letters can wait. Ask for what you want. Receive what you need. Be kind to yourself, I'll tell them. Grief is a lot of work.

I also urge the grieving to be open to the support of others-family, neighbors, church, and faith. Living in the Bitterroot, you are surrounded by caring hospice volunteers, small church groups, service organizations, store owners, care providers, neighbors, and family. You aren't alone. In fact, many people choose to work through their own grief by reaching out to help others who are lonely or grieving or in need. Others have told me stories about visions and encounters in which their deceased loved one is perceived "at peace" in the next life. I am coming to realize that, around death and dying, the veil between what we can see and what we can't see becomes thin.

Be kind to yourself and be open to others. That about sums it up.

For those reading this article that want to support loved ones who are grieving this holiday season, give them the gift of your quiet presence.

Be there for your grieving friend or loved one. They need you. Your prayers. Your hugs. Your concern. Your presence. The most important part of our visit last week might have been throwing the football in the backyard with our friend's 10 year old son. "Being there" also means noticing when it's time to give them space. Generally speaking, keep visits short-30 minutes or less. Being there means you are there for them, not for yourself.

And be "quiet." This means, first of all, that your own heart is at peace. Before you visit or call a grieving loved one, make sure you set aside your own grief, your own stress and anxieties. Don't burden them with one more thing to worry about! Have a quiet heart when you visit or call.

Being quiet isn't the same as being silent. It is okay to share your condolences and tears. Share positive stories and remembrances of past holidays with the deceased-but take your cues from the one who is closest to the grief. Let them know you care.

If you share a faith tradition, then use the hymns and scripture and prayers of that tradition to reinforce faith and comfort in the time of death. If they go to church, offer to go with them, or to sit with them during the service. Don't force it.

Being quiet also means just that: don't talk too much. Don't preach. Don't rationalize. Don't minimalize or moralize. Don't try to defend. Don't say things you think might make your friend feel better. It probably won't. That's because grief is intensely personal work, and, until they are ready, our words are mostly just noise. The longer I work with grieving families, the less I have to say, and the more I simply listen, acknowledge, and encourage.

Our friend is facing a difficult Christmas season, but she knows she's not forgotten. My sister continues to grieve deeply, and I pray that this year will be a little better. My friends battled the cold and bad weather to be with their dad, and they'll treasure those memories in the years ahead. My great-aunt was thrilled that we could share dinner with her on our way through town. May you use this holiday season to be open to mystery, to be thankful, and to be kind to others, especially those who have recently experienced a loss or grief.

Marcus Daly Hospice staff and volunteers are hosting their 24th annual Tree of Lights ceremony on Saturday, December 12th at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. All are welcome to join us for our annual Tree of Lights ceremony which is a time to reflect and remember those we love during this special time of year. The Hospice Volunteers are hosting a cookie reception prior to the ceremony which begins at 3:00pm in conference rooms B/C. The Celebration of Light ceremony will follow at 3:30pm and take place in the new MDMH Blodgett/Canyon View conference rooms. This celebration will include holiday music and the reading of loved ones names who have passed away. The event will conclude with the lighting of the tree at the Hospice Center entrance.

Questions and or comments regarding this week's health column please contact, Doug Peterson, Chaplain at Marcus Daly Hospice Center and Services, a service of Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, 1200 Westwood Drive, Hamilton, MT 59840. Working together to build a healthier community!


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