It can take something as simple as a word or a song to bring back memories – and tears – for Joe Borgman.
When his beloved wife, Jeanie, died last August after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, he was bereft. “She was my life,” he says simply, “and I lost that.”
After 46 years of marriage, Joe faced the quiet of an empty house for the first time. As the holidays approached, his three daughters wanted to know what the plans were – and he wasn’t sure.
“We decided to have Christmas together, along with Jean’s brother and his family,” Joe recalls. “I left a little early. I find that I watch situations and protect myself if things are going in a direction where I am not going to be comfortable.
“People can say something completely innocent and have no idea that it can bring back memories. I have become much more aware of that now. Unless you have gone through it, you cannot realize how one small thing can turn your day from happiness to sadness.”
But that makes perfect sense to Heather O’Brien, director of bereavement services for Emmanuel Hospice – particularly around the holidays.
“When someone experiences the death of a loved one, they’re facing one of life’s most significant challenges,” O’Brien explains. “While a lot of people experience grief, it’s poorly understood in our society and lasts longer than our society recognizes. No two people grieve in the same way.
“For those who have experienced a loss, happy memories are dulled by that pain and the sorrow of experiencing the holidays without that special person. People already experience a lot of stress during the holidays, and if you add the weight of grief to it, the holidays can become almost unbearable.”
Grief manifests itself in numerous ways, O’Brien says, including:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to sleep
- Feeling angry or easily frustrated
- Avoiding people or things you used to enjoy
- Difficulty leaving the house
- Drinking or eating to excess
“People may try and dull the pain with alcohol, food or spending, which are all equally problematic,” O’Brien says. “Substance abuse is readily supported during the holiday season. While it might temporarily dull the pain, the grief is still there.
“You can’t prevent grief or cure it. And you can’t go around grief – you have to go through it.”
The holidays can magnify feelings of sadness and isolation, O’Brien knows. We are surrounded by decorations, holiday TV shows, songs on the radio, card companies – you name it, O’Brien said, and we are awash in expectations that we are supposed to be happy.
Through her work at Emmanuel Hospice, she regularly counsels people, like Joe, who are struggling to understand their grief. As a nonprofit provider of hospice services, Emmanuel provides individual and group counseling to anyone in the community, whether or not the individual or family use their service.
At this time of year, O’Brien offers tips to make the holidays more manageable, including:
- Scale back. Grief robs us of emotional and physical energy, and it may lighten your load to skip sending cards, baking, or decorating this year.
- Be honest about invitations. You can attend some, all or none of the celebrations you are invited to.
- Let family and friends know that you may not be able to do as much this year
- Avoid events that seem like obligations.
- Keep some of your old holiday traditions, but start some new ones. If your house was always the place family gathered for a meal, ask a relative if he or she would be willing to host this year.
- Have a Plan A (dinner with relatives) and a Plan B (simple dinner and a movie at home) so that when you wake up on a holiday, you can choose the option that feels the best.
- Find people who will support you. Identify those who are good listeners, who are safe to share feelings with or who have experienced a loss.
- Honor your loved one’s memory by making a donation in their name, buying a special ornament to hang on the tree, sharing favorite stories or volunteering to help others.
“Above all, be gentle with yourself,” O’Brien notes. “Don’t expect too much of yourself. You need to expect that the holidays will hurt and it will take some time to adjust. Recognize you are doing the best you can and give yourself permission to feel what you feel.”
Emmanuel Hospice is a faith-based provider of hospice and palliative care services to those who call West Michigan home. The organization is hosting two free educational groups on Nov. 9 2016, to discuss the grief journey through the holidays. Visit our Facebook Page for more information.