Grieving at the holidays

When grief is a guest

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be especially challenging in this season of good cheer.

By Naila Francis

For Jeff Dershin, Thanksgiving was actually pleasant.

The recent widower spent the holiday with his wife’s sister and her family, where he made the toast during dinner and everyone raised a glass to his late, beloved Susan.

“It was not a painful experience,” says Dershin. “It felt good being around them. I felt understood and appreciated − and I’ve been dealing with my feelings all along, so it’s not like something surprising was going to come up.”

The Doylestown Township resident lost his wife of 41 years in August, following her three−year battle with breast cancer.

As Christmas approaches, he knows there will be challenging, and even deeply sorrowful, moments. But Dershin is also heartened that the holidays will bring him a little closer to his wife with the return of the seasonal employees to A Special Gift, the Doylestown store they co−owned.

“Some of the young women who work in the store − Susan was like a mentor to them. Any young woman who worked for her just sort of glommed onto her,” he says. “I look forward to seeing them because Susan comes alive for me through them.”


It’s been almost 11 years since Michael Moser died while awaiting a liver transplant at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

But while she’s been moving on with her life, keeping a hectic work and social schedule and dating frequently, this is the first year that his widow, Edie Weinstein, has felt “normal.”

For 10 years, the Perkasie resident struggled through the holidays, reliving many of the emotions she experienced in the period leading up to Michael’s death, when she sat on hyper−vigilant watch at his bedside, getting two to three hours of a sleep a night while living with him in the ICU. Michael, who had hepatitis C, never received his transplant. He died on Dec. 21, 1998, the last night of Hanukkah that year and also the winter solstice. He had been hospitalized from about Thanksgiving, and his memorial was held on the morning of Christmas Eve.

“Every year, I had a very difficult time acknowledging the holidays,” says Weinstein. “My body shifted into the same mode of sleeplessness, of grief, and then once the holidays were over, I went back to whatever semblance of normal looked like then.

“Normal for me this year is what I think of as a new normal. When someone you love dies, you have to create a new sense of normal because what was before your routine is no longer. For me, it’s, “Wow, I can listen to holiday music and I feel good, and I can look at decorations and I feel good. And, wow, I’m sleeping.’ ”


Coping with the loss of a loved one is agonizing at any time of the year, but during the holidays, it can be especially devastating.

The busy preparations and planning, the music and messages that emphasize feelings of joy and gratitude, the traditions woven into celebrations that generate feelings of love and togetherness − such pervasive festivity can feel especially jarring to the bereaved.

While others anticipate family get−togethers in which they assume special roles and participate in time−honored rituals, those are exactly the moments that can heighten a sense of loss and grief.

“Everybody has their own little place at the table, and the table is empty in the place where they sat, or we go to Grandma’s every Christmas. Well, if Grandma’s not here, now what?” says Shari Lynn Pescatore, a Chalfont therapist whose practice includes grief and bereavement counseling. “Because there’s so much ritual and tradition going on at the holidays, the absence becomes more glaring,”

For some, the temptation is to withdraw. Others will throw themselves into the festivity, perhaps giving in to obligation, the expectations of others, the false notion of how they’re supposed to act at this time of year, or even a sense of guilt that they may be letting down the one they’ve lost by choosing not to participate in what was once the cherished familiar.


“We follow these ‘shoulds,’ ” says Pescatore. “The first year’s the hardest. The second year should get better. The third year, come on, you’re still crying? And forget about when you go up into five or 10. Move on. There’s an unwritten societal concept for grieving and then when we don’t fit into that, we get, ‘What’s wrong with me?’

“Some people are going through the motions of what’s expected instead of respecting what they’re going through and following their heart,” she says. “Grief is an individualized process. No two people grieve the same. And a lot of it is giving yourself permission that it’s OK.

“It’s taking that ‘should’ out and being OK with ‘I’m upset,’ ‘It’s been five years.’ That’s OK. There is no time frame with grief.”

For Weinstein, last year − the 10−year anniversary of Michael’s death − was the hardest.

“That was the toughest in terms of the emotional roller−coaster ride. I thought, ‘I have this tackled, I’m not alone, I have wonderful support in my life, my spiritual faith gets me through this,’ and it just knocked me on my butt,” says Weinstein, who as an interfaith minister and social worker offers grief counseling to others.

She called up a few friends and let them hold her as she sobbed, aware that she’d been harboring the emotions that poured out for too long. The release felt cleansing.

“I gave myself permission to be fully human. For me, it’s an occupational hazard because I think, ‘I do this kind of work, I should be able to handle it,’ but there’s a difference between being able to do something professionally and do it personally.

“For me, that was almost like, ‘I’m all cried out’ − not that I don’t cry every once in a while still − but that felt like more of a completion to me,” says Weinstein, who this year finally reverted to her maiden name after continuing to use Weinstein−Moser for the last 10 years.


For those with a strong network of nurturing relationships, all the social activity of the holidays may actually present a healing opportunity.

“At different times of the year, it’s easy to isolate and for people to back off from you, but during the holidays, people come together. The positive thing about that is, if you’re allowing yourself to grieve in a healthy way − which is acknowledging your sadness, sharing your feelings, talking about the person you loved − then the holidays can be a positive time because being with friends and family allows you to do that,” says Candace Smolowe, a grief and forgiveness coach based in Doylestown.

“On the flip side, if you’re not used to expressing your feelings, it’s going to feel scary because you’re not going to want to go to all those parties; you’re not going to want to be around family and friends.”

In those instances, taking a timeout is perfectly acceptable.

“Everything in your life has changed because of the loss. You might as well change how you do the holidays, too,” says Smolowe. “It’s almost like grieving gives you an opportunity to get off of that rat race and just care for yourself.”

Yvonne Kaye, a North Wales bereavement specialist who works primarily with parents who have lost children, advises speaking up to help alleviate the stress and discomfort of participating in activities and traditions when one’s heart isn’t in them.

“If you don’t want to go and you keep telling yourself you must and you should and, really, you just cannot, then you’re going to shriek out something and it’s not going to be very healthy, so I always say that honesty is really the best policy: ‘I appreciate what you’re doing but I really can’t do this right now,’ ” she says. “What’s most important at this time of year is that people who love these people understand that they have rights. If you have to go to a Christmas party or a Hanukkah party or whatever, make sure you have an exit plan.

“If you agree to meet someone for lunch, make sure it’s someone you can phone five minutes before you’re supposed to meet and say you’re not doing it.”


But avoiding or minimizing the amount of time spent amidst all the holiday cheer is not an invitation to also avoid one’s grief − or engage in what Kaye refers to as “emotional amputation” by either denying or intellectualizing away one’s feelings.

“Sometimes, people feel that need to go away. They say, ‘I won’t be here for the holidays,’ but they take their grief with them, so that doesn’t work,” says Kaye, who also advises creating a “scream list” of three friends that one can call to vent and say anything to without judgment or feedback. “Instead of going to the heart and soul, where (grieving) belongs, people go to the head, the great rationalizer. I understand that because, in a way, it’s grabbing at some sanity, and they don’t want to look at this terrible pain. But the grief’s not going to go away until it’s ready to go away.”

There are tools and resources that can help to move through the pain. Kaye refers many of her clients to The Compassionate Friends, a network of support groups that helps families work through the loss of a child. Several churches and other community organizations offer bereavement groups as well. Such support systems are often a safe place for the grieving since they are in the company of others who really do know how they feel.

Though Dershin initially rejected the idea of joining such a group − “I didn’t want to sit around and be sad,” he says − he eventually connected with one through Doylestown Hospital and has since found comfort in its kinship.

Still, were it not for his son Gaby accompanying him to his first meeting, he’s not sure he would have made it there. It was Gaby who made his introductions to the group as he was too choked up to do so.


“What works for me is having someone to hold my hand, either a friend or a relative,” says Dershin, who also is a musician.

When he decided to attend a dinner with a group of musicians he sees a few times a year after being out of touch for a while, he invited the lead singer of his former band to come with him.

“I wanted to go and I wanted to show my colleagues that I’m still here, I’m still alive, I’m still a person. But I didn’t want to have to sit by myself at a table and have 100 people feel bad for me,” he says. “It was a great two (to) three hours. The whole time I was there, somebody was hugging me, kissing me, saying, ‘I’m so sorry, man’ − as musicians say − or if they knew Susan, they’d say, ‘She was such a beautiful woman,’ but I had to have someone hold my hand.”

When making his first trip to his favorite Chinese restaurant without his wife, he brought his daughter−in−law Andrea and his grandson Jax. Anticipating the owner’s question, he informed her of his wife’s passing before she could ask.

“That was a hurdle to get over,” says Dershin. “The hurdles come up unexpectedly with some frequency. You just have to do your best to get past them.”


Weinstein, who was married to Michael for almost 12 years − the couple’s son was 11 when he died − found that she was not only grieving the loss of her husband but the loss of the expectations for their relationship.

The two had started a magazine together and talked of eventually retiring to Key West. In addition to prayer, journaling and talking with friends and family, she found solace in completing the interfaith ministry program her husband had started in New York and becoming a volunteer for the Gift of Life donor program.

But even as she threw herself into such activities, she felt the void of what had been − and would never be.

“The role of caregiver, spouse, co−parent, co−business partner − those roles were gone. I had to recreate myself. I had to decide, Who am I now?’ ” she says.

According to Smolowe, the bereaved often spend a lot of time focusing on the absence of their loved one and wishing they could have that relationship back.

“A good way to be with your grief is to complete the relationship. It’s not only remembering the person and sharing memories and developing rituals perhaps and taking care of yourself in the process; I really believe recovering from grief requires that you express the emotions you need to express to that person,” she says.

She suggests a relationship review.

“Consider all of the highs, all of the lows, everything that was a part of that relationship from apology and appreciation and forgiveness − ‘I forgive you for doing this,’ ‘I also want to apologize to you for this,’ and ‘I want you to know you were a role model to me in this way’ − and then write that person a letter.

“It allows you to say everything you didn’t while they were alive,” she says. “You’re not saying, ‘I didn’t want this to happen and what am I going to do?’ You’re saying, ‘I’m choosing to look at this relationship that I’ve lost in its completeness and feel better and get on with my life.’ ”


While individuals will cycle through varying emotions − including anger, denial, sorrow, numbness and acceptance − on their way to healing, some behaviors may signal that it’s time to seek professional help. When sadness gives way to depression, prolonged isolation and an inability to function on a daily basis − staying in bed, not working, sleeping or eating too much or too little − then it’s time to reach out to someone who specializes in grief therapy or counseling, says Pescatore.

Eventually, there will come a time when the pain dulls and thoughts of the absent loved one are no longer foremost in one’s mind.

“People will tell you something like, ‘I suddenly realized tonight that for a whole hour I didn’t think about him,’ ” says Kaye. “It’s the simple things, like ‘I actually read a chapter in a book today,’ ‘I actually laughed today and I didn’t feel guilty.’ There’s not a huge awareness where suddenly the skies open. It’s these little tiny steps that they recognize.”

In the meantime, Smolowe advises using the holidays to make a series of similarly small choices toward recovery: instead of getting a turkey, order a pizza; instead of decorating the entire house, put out a candle; if you bought presents for your spouse in October and he died in November, consider giving them to a charity or someone else.

“Time doesn’t heal anything,” she says. “It’s what you do with the time that heals you. Grief is a transformative process. You don’t lose something that really matters to you without going through some kind of inner transformation. And transformation is hard.

“Expect that it is going to be difficult from time to time and expect that there are going to be moments of unanticipated joy. Go in with your eyes wide open. Pace yourself. Do what feels good to you. Reach out to people you trust. And love the person who’s gone,” she says. “Love that person up in whatever way you can.”


 Breakout: Being of solace

While many may feel uncomfortable or inadequate trying to support someone who’s lost a loved one, such support can be crucial to the grieving and healing process.

Here are some tips from experts on what you can do to be helpful to those grieving at this time − and what isn’t of help at all:

  •  Invite/allow them to speak (about their memories, feelings, etc.) − and then listen.
  •  If bringing up the name of the person who’s passed or a subject involving them, ask for permission to do so first.
  • Acknowledge their sadness. (“I see this is difficult for you” is a phrase you can offer.)
  • Don’t give advice.
  • Don’t try to fix anything or anyone; there’s nothing wrong or broken.
  • Understand and respect their rights − to say no to an invitation, to cancel plans at the last minute, to forgo traditions, etc.
  •  Don’t offer expressions such as “It’s God’s will,” “He’s in a better place, “It was her time,” “You’ll find someone new,” etc.; if at a loss for words, admitting “I don’t know what to say” or asking “Would a hug help?” will be more appreciated.
  • Ask, “What do you want me to do?”
  • If they have children they are unable to tend to or need a break from, offer to have the kids come over to your house.
  • No matter how much time has passed, do not impose a timeline for grieving with comments such as “It’s time you moved on,” “Shouldn’t you be over this by now,” “Get over it,” etc.
  • Accept them where they are.

Compiled from Yvonne Kaye, Candace Smolowe and Shari Lynn Pescatore

– The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times


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