The holiday season is bittersweet for Jeanne Rorke. The days leading up to Christmas are filled with memories of her parents. Her mother committed suicide when Rorke was 12, and her father died on Christmas Eve eight years ago.
“No one really helped me through the grieving process,” said Rorke, recalling her mother’s death. “My family was like, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ … My Christmases have always been kind of sad … even though I put on a happy face for my family.”
Roarke joined about two dozen others at a workshop on handling grief during the holidays called, “Facing the Empty Chair: Surviving the Holidays after Losing a Loved One” at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria. From those who are preparing to celebrate a first Christmas without a loved one to those who’ve been grieving for decades, participants shared experiences, supported each other and gained tools for surviving the season while facing the reality of the empty chair in which their loved one once sat.
“The holidays can be time of longing for those who’ve lost someone,” said Carey Gauzens, a licensed clinical social worker at the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia in McLean. “The holidays are a time when you reflect on family, and it’s hard for someone who’s aware that that person isn’t there.”
At the workshop, Gauzens clarified some of the misinformation surrounding grief, especially during the holidays. “First and most important, is that normal grieving is really hard for most people. Some people believe the myth that grief lasts only for a few months, but it’s hard to measure your healing because it’s an up and down process, not a smooth, straight line.”
Throughout the process, and particularly during the holidays, being able to tap into a source of strength other than oneself is a factor that Gauzen underscores: “It’s important to have a support group, friends, a therapist.”
Finding someone who is also grieving can be particularly helpful. For example, when Beverly Bell’s husband died nine years ago following an extended illness, she found strength and comfort in a friendship with another widow.
“[We] had a wonderful relationship … for several years following my husband's death,” said Bell, who attended the workshop. “We had a regular lunch date and also shared a number of holidays. She also died a couple of years ago, and I realized that I am particularly missing her presence.”
Earlier this year, Bell’s brother died as well. “I found myself re-experiencing many of the feelings I had had when my husband died, [but feeling] particularly helpless to comfort my sister-in-law,” she said. “Perhaps [my] presence is the most important thing I can … offer my sister-in-law.”
Some of the workshop attendees wanted to learn how to better support others. “I am a member of the Community of Hope International, a group of lay pastoral caregivers whose ministry is to visit those who are experiencing sickness, trauma, tragedy or loss of a loved one,” said Caroline McCormack, one of the participants. “I wanted to have a better understanding of the grieving process, so I might be a more compassionate listener.”
She and Bell learned that process is different for everyone. “My husband’s death was preceded by a long illness. My brother's death was sudden,” said Bell. “I wondered if something about the timing made a difference in how we experience and cope with grief. I learned that it really does not.”
"... We all experience grief in different ways and it can show up at unexpected times and places and so we need to be gentle with ourselves and find ways that we can express our grief in ways that feel healing and safe for us," added Revered Elizabeth Rees. Associate Rector, St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church.
This is a point Gauzens tried to underscore: Grieving is an individual process and there is no one-size-fits-all method for coping. Even people who are grieving for the same person can experience it differently and have different needs. “For example, one person might want to talk about the loss, but others might not,” she said. “It’s important to be sensitive to family members who grieve differently and compromise so that each person feels emotionally safe.”
Cultivating self-awareness and knowing what is normal to expect while one is grieving is important. “Sometimes the symptoms are so intense it makes people feel like they’re going crazy and frightens them sometimes,” said Gauzens. “They might cry at the drop of a hat, get angry or feel unable to control their emotions. There could become deeply distracted or confused like get lost going someplace they know well.
“Give yourself permission to make careful decisions about how you’ll spend your time,” she added. “It’s helpful to discern within yourself what feels right. Decide whether to maintain holiday traditions or do something completely different.”
Avoiding all festive, social activities might do more harm than good, however. “A person who’s grieving might end up isolating because they won’t go to places they once went to with the person they’ve lost,” said Gauzens.
Instead, Gauzens suggests planning “something to look forward to after the holiday to reward yourself for getting through the holidays.”
She also stressed the need for self-care, including exercising, eating healthy and staying hydrated. “It’s important to minimize your use of mood altering substances like alcohol,” said Gauzens. “It’s tempting to try to numb the pain, but it comes back.”
Changing customs can make holidays less painful, says Dr. Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Marymount University in Arlington. “I like to break with traditions that are familiar and that remind us of the loved one we lost,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good to shake it up and start a new tradition, so you’re looking forward instead of behind you.”
“The days are darker and colder, which exacerbates any sadness that we might be feeling anyway,” said Gulyn. “Hang in there. It will feel better and you will get through it. The holidays will go by and we’ll get back into our routine and productive lives that help with healing.
There is a point however, when assistance from a mental health professional is a necessary, Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, George Mason University in Fairfax. “People should seek professional help if they have significant distress and difficulty in daily self-care and functioning at home or work that has lasted more than two weeks without improvement,” he said. “Common symptoms for depression are low mood, lack of pleasure in previously enjoyable activities, social isolation, and thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness.”