When most people think of holidays and special occasions, they envision themselves among family and friends.
But what happens when death strikes and someone is faced with spending a holiday without a loved one?
“Sometimes people feel like they’re going crazy. Their grief intensifies during the holidays and sometimes that catches people off guard,” said Kayla Waldschmidt, bereavement co-ordinator for the Horizon Resources Grief Center, a program within Horizon Homecare and Hospice in Brown Deer, Wis.
Waldschmidt said some people cling tightly to holiday traditions, while others feel like they don’t want to celebrate at all.
“It gets worse. Feelings of loneliness and sadness can intensify,” she said. “You don’t want to isolate yourself and you don’t want to try to ignore the fact that you’re hurting.”
Going out of town on vacation or doing something completely different than usual are options, Waldschmidt said.
People shouldn’t act as though coming to terms with the absence of a loved one isn’t painful, they should discuss “what everybody needs to get through this day,” Waldschmidt added.
She recommended finding a way to memorialize the person who died or finding a helpful or healing ritual.
Examples of ways to memorialize a lost loved one at the holidays include leaving an empty chair at the dinner table in honor of him or her, writing down memories, visiting the loved one’s grave or having a Mass celebrated in that person’s honor.
Adults can help children through special occasions without loved ones by having a family discussion about important aspects of holidays and what traditions they like best and how they want to honor the departed.
Ingrid Seunarine, director of bereavement services for the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., knows firsthand how difficult it can be coping with a loved one’s death on a holiday.
Her mother died on Thanksgiving 15 years ago, and five years ago, her father died on Christmas Day.
Seunarine said there’s no right or wrong way to handle grief during the holidays. “Everyone is an individual, we handle situations differently; some people aren’t able to celebrate at all — on the other hand, some people will say they have to continue tradition,” she said.
It’s important for the bereaved to understand that coming to terms with grief will be painful and takes time, Seunarine said, stressing that one can’t hurry the process. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
“You can’t get from here to there without experiencing the pain. It will get better eventually but everybody grieves at their own pace,” she said, adding that the bereaved should not feel guilty for having a good time during a holiday or special occasion.
“Don’t feel bad if you’re having a good day and you are smiling. It’s OK; you can’t be sad 24/7,” Seunarine said.
Mercy Sister Marie Mich-eletto, a counselor and national speaker on family life topics, has compiled a list of suggestions for people coping with the death of a loved one during a holiday or special occasion which includes the following advice:
l Be prepared with a response when people ask what they can do to help.
l Share stories about your loved one.
l Re-evaluate old traditions and family rituals and determine what should still be observed and what might change.
l Plan something to look forward to after the holidays.
l Find opportunities for support.
l And lastly, count your blessings by making a list.