Coping with grief during the holidays

Experts offer advice, support groups for the bereaved  

By ROSE YBARRA
The Valley Catholic

The holidays, particularly the first ones after the death of a loved one, are especially difficult for a person who is grieving. Facing that first Thanksgiving and Christmas with an empty place at the table evokes excruciating sadness and many other emotions, said Fina Suarez, whose son, Eddie, died in 2001 at the age of 20. 

“I remember the first Thanksgiving without our son,” said Suarez, who serves as director of pastoral care at San Juan Nursing Home, which operates under the guidance of the diocese. “We were sad because we don’t have what we had before – our son is missing. That day, my husband said, ‘how can I tell God, thank you for taking my son? How can I say, thank you, Lord, when my son is not with us anymore?’”

Suarez continued, “But at the same time, we were truly grateful.  That day, we also said thank you to the Lord for those wonderful 20 years that He gave us with our son. I’m still very grateful that He gave me this gift, a very precious gift that I enjoyed to the fullest for those 20 years. Instead of focusing on our son’s death, we’d rather focus on the memories, and the joy, and happiness that he brought into our lives.”

Talking about her son at Thanksgiving, as it turned out, was good for everyone, Suarez said, adding that it is vital to give people permission to talk about the deceased friend or family member.

“And that really helped, not just me, but my other family members, to open the conversation and talk about him,” she said. “Many times, when the grieving people are not talking about it, your friends and other family members don’t want to mention anything, because they think they are hurting you by saying something.”

Talking about your loved one is an important part of grieving, especially at holiday gatherings, said Joseph F. Perez, vice president of pastoral service with Valley Baptist Health System in Harlingen.

Perez said some grieving families even choose to share stories about their loved one.

“Of course it’s going to be sad,” he said. “Some of the stories about that loved one will be sad and make people cry. Other stories will be happy and make people laugh, but at least everyone will be honest about it and that’s when healing can take place.”

And being honest about the situation is healthy for those who are grieving, Perez said.

“When you lose a loved one, nothing can ever be like it used to be, because that person is no longer in your life, physically,” he said. “The process of grief is to learn to carry their memory in your heart, but during the holidays, one has to prepare. This loss will affect your holidays and it is normal for it to affect your holidays. It’s ok.”

Suarez, who assists individuals and families with grief on a regular basis through her ministry at the nursing home, said that she and her family have Masses celebrated in her son’s memory. The family also honors him by collecting toys for needy children at Christmas, a cause that was dear to her son.

“Losing my son will always be sad,” said Suarez, who has served at San Juan Nursing Home for more than 20 years. “There is no way to not remember but you can arrive at a place of hope.”

The grieving process is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, Perez said. One moment, the grieving person may be at peace, the next moment, they may be distraught, especially during the first year.

“Grief comes and goes like waves,” he said. “I think of it like you’re on the beach and you have your back to the waves. You feel the constant push, but every once in a while, you get a real big one and it can knock you down. You just don’t know when those strong emotions might come. It could be at the grocery store when you see a certain food, it could be in the car when you hear a song on the radio, just something that hits and touches that tender spot in your heart.”

When it comes to grief, many people say, “this too shall pass,” or “it will heal with time,” but Perez said the notion that time heals all wounds is a myth. 

“Time is not the healing agent,” he said. “The healing agent is attention to the wound, over time, heals. Attention to the wound, over time, brings about healing.”

The best way to tend to grief is to face it rather than ignore it, Perez said. Having support, from family, friends or a bereavement support group, is key.

Both San Juan Nursing Home and Valley Baptist Health Systems offer free support groups for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

For more information on support groups at San Juan Nursing Home, call (956) 787-1771. For support groups at Valley Baptist Health System, call (956) 389-1194.


 

Tips for coping during the holidays without your loved one
1. Normalize your feelings.  Know that the sadness, the anger, the helplessness, or whatever you are feeling is normal.  Give yourself permission to grieve.  When people ask you, “How are you doing?” you have the right to answer them honestly if you choose to do so.
2. Ask yourself, “What do I want to do this year?”  You may find it helpful to try to keep things as “normal” as possible for the sake of continuity.  What are your traditions around the special seasons? Or, if it this is too great a burden this year, give yourself permission to do something different or start a new tradition.
3. If at all possible, surround yourself with family and people who care. Probably, the hardest thing to do is to be alone.
4. Get plenty of rest and eat appropriately.  Grief can be tiring work, especially during the holidays.  Exercising can also help.
5. Seek out the professional support from a pastor / priest or other counselor if necessary.

Source: Valley Baptist Health System

 

The Valley Catholic
700 N. Virgen de San Juan Blvd.
San Juan, TX 78589

Phone: (956) 781-5323
Fax: (956) 784-5082
Publisher: Bishop Daniel E. Flores
Editor: Brenda Nettles Riojas
editor@cdob.org