When grief clouds the holiday season, Community Mental Health says give yourself grace

Grandma always led the cookie-baking marathon; but, now that she’s gone, who will take it on?

Dad always handed out the gifts on Christmas morning; but, without his Santa Spirit, Christmas morning feels empty.

The dinner table was always set for six, but this year there will be an empty spot.

For many, after the loss of a loved one, the holidays just don’t feel the same.
Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health
“The holidays are always portrayed by the media as perfect times, perfect holidays, perfect gifts, perfect meals, and that's not true for most of us,” says Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH). “If you've lost someone or if you are no longer in contact with your family for whatever reason, the holidays can be a very lonely time.”

Gallagher says one of the things that can be difficult after the loss of a loved one is continuing with old traditions because we remember past holidays when that person participated in the tradition, and then feel a wave of grief. She says that may look different for each person.
 
“We always say it's okay to start new traditions, and it's okay not to do some of the things you used to do because they just make you sad,” Gallagher says. “It's really about giving yourself grace and giving your family the grace that you need to do things that you're okay with doing.”

When Ethel and Kenneth Moore lost their 24-year-old son, Bradley, to suicide nine years ago, their holidays also began to look different. Their first Christmas without Bradley was especially difficult, but the couple found a way to remember their son on Christmas Day.

“The first Christmas we didn't really do Christmas at all because it was our first year without him,” Ethel says. “What we did was, I had put a message out on Facebook that all of his friends could come leave a note on the porch about the good times they had with him and we would take them in and read them. Christmas night we took all the notes and read them and that helped, remembering all the good times he had with his friends.”

"This is us with Bradley on his graduation day," says Ethel Moore. "He had gotten his GED. Probably the best day he ever had."
Now that it’s been nine years since Bradley passed away, Kenneth and Ethel have found other ways to pass the holidays. However, Kenneth says their holidays just don’t have the same joy as they once did.

“When he passed away, it kind of took care of our holiday spirit,” Kenneth says. “I mean, it changed everything for us.”

“[Our daughter] will come home Christmas Eve and spend it with us here at home and then our other son, who was our middle child, we go to his house for Christmas dinner in the afternoon. But we don't really exchange gifts at all hardly and it's just not the same,” says Ethel. “I usually will light a candle next to his picture on Christmas Eve. That just lets me know that we're not forgetting about him.”

The couple says one thing they have come to terms with through this is that everyone grieves differently. In addition to participating in the Survivors of Suicide Support Group offered by SCCCMH, Ethel says she finds it helpful to talk about him.

“I like to talk about him during the holidays, maybe even a little more, with my friends,” Ethel says. “It just makes me feel good and it lets me know that they haven't forgotten him and he's still close to me. My husband and my son, they don't like to talk about him.”

Kenneth and Ethel Moore.

Because everyone grieves differently and needs different things when they’re grieving, Adrienne Luckenbacher, Community Relations and Outreach Coordinator at SCCCMH, says it’s important to remember to let people know what you need if you are grieving or struggling emotionally – whether during the holidays or any other time.

“People are not mind readers - it doesn't matter if it's your husband of 50 years, your parent, or your best friend,” Luckenbacher says. “Different people need different things at different times. You might say, ‘Listen, I really don't want to go to the gathering and be around family and friends, but I would really appreciate a text or call later to let me know how the party was.’”

If you know someone who has lost a friend or loved one, or if you have a friend or family member who is struggling emotionally this holiday season, it can be difficult to know what to say to help. Luckenbacher suggests first, making sure it’s the right time and place to ask if someone is doing alright to avoid calling someone out publicly such as at a family gathering, or a work party. Just talk to them privately, then open up the conversation.

“You can start out the conversation by just saying, ‘I'm concerned,’ and that opens the door that lets the person know that you're there,” she says.

Luckenbacher says it can be helpful to add factual information about why you’re concerned, such as, “I’m concerned because I noticed you’ve been crying a lot and you look tired. Is there anything I can do to help?” Then, if the person feels like opening up, one of the best things you can do is listen and don’t feel the need to fill the quiet moments. If your friend or family member doesn’t want to talk right then, leave the door for conversation open.

“Don't assume that just because the person doesn't want to talk in that moment that they don't want to talk at all,” Luckenbacher says. “You can leave the door open and just say, ‘If it's something that you don't feel like talking about right now, I understand, I just want to let you know I'm here if you want to talk.’”

Gallagher adds that helping someone who is struggling doesn’t have to be a big, grand gesture. It can be as simple as offering a hug and saying, “I’m here if you need me,” or dropping a card in the mail. She also says that while we often are told to think of others during the holidays, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well – and to not feel guilty about it.

“Sometimes we feel guilted into doing things that don't serve us anymore, that are more difficult, and sometimes we think we have to do that because we've always done it. But I think traditions can change,” she says. “Really it's about taking care of yourself. During the holidays, we're always thinking of other people and taking care of other people, but it's okay to take care of yourself too.”