By John Monroe-Cassel
During the holiday season, there will be the inevitable interplay of cheer and “oh dear” as families who have experienced difficult times, even deaths in the family, strive to cope and adjust to the challenges. When hard times hit at holiday time, families often are at a loss for how to get through the season.
The following are some tried and true ways people have succeeded in making a time of deep sadness or grief during a cultural time of joy and glad tidings survivable and maybe even special:
- Find the information about grief that helps your family experience and even talk about the sadness of losing a family member. Helpful materials can be found online, just type in “holiday grief” and many resources will appear or in your public library. Librarians are excellent resources for finding relevant reading material to meet your particular need.Local funeral homes have materials on site and on their websites that many have found helpful. Call your local Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) and hospices in the area and ask to speak with their bereavement coordinators and/or spiritual care professionals or check out their websites, as well. Churches may have materials about loss and difficulty suitable to your religious tradition, and if you have a pastor or rabbi or imam who is close to your family, he or she may be an excellent source of support.
- Give members of your family a break from the usual banter families experience during tense times: everyone grieves loss differently, even within the same family unit. Instead, find time and activity that brings people together and encourages lighter moments of enjoyment.
- Talk with each other about which holiday practices, activities, and traditions are essential to keep and which are ok to put aside maybe for just this one season. Families are not well-trained to discuss these things, so give each other plenty of time to explain why they think we should or should not do this year. For instance, maybe this year if you hang stockings a stocking can be hung for the person who is not with you due to illness or death, and family members can write on a piece of paper what they miss or how much they love that person and put the paper in the stocking. Absence of person does not mean absence of love.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: Talk with each other about the gratitude you have for the one who is gone but who gave you all the best of who you are. By focusing on gratitude, thankfulness, wonder and delight at what he/she meant to you while he/she was alive, the season becomes less about the sadness of loss and more about the meaning of ongoing love.
Every family has the ability to adjust to even the most painful circumstances, and there is no substitute for working together toward the most effective and meaningful togetherness possible when this is needed most. This meaning-making puts the “holy” in holi-day!
John Monroe-Cassel, MDiv., MAT, is Spiritual and Bereavement Care Counselor for Lake Sunapee Region VNA and Hospice and has worked with individuals and families for many years in several different states as counselor, pastor, chaplain, and bereavement coordinator.