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Dealing with death during holidays a part of life

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Holiday lights, carols and traditional foods are just the things to create a festive mood this month.

But for the adult child who recently lost a parent, a longtime member of a couple whose spouse has died, or the family facing an empty chair at their traditional gathering, there may not be much fa-la-la-la-la in late December.

The psychological stress of the holidays, often a time of raised expectations, is especially painful for a family in mourning, said Robert Rubinstein, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose research has focused on loss and grief for older adults.

"It's a very difficult time," he said. "That's not to say people can't have great holidays."

In his studies of families after the loss of an elderly parent, Rubinstein noted how younger generations, especially middle-aged daughters, worry about their widowed parent's grief more than their own.

He has seen how resilient people are as they share memories and Mom's favorite recipe and remember the people they miss.

"People do tend to take care of each other," he said.

A parent's death marks a time of transition, he said, as questions arise about whether a family will remain united and roles will evolve for the succeeding generation.

"It really means a change in the generations," Rubinstein said.

Whether a loved one died a year ago or a decade ago, pain can come roaring back and it's not unusual, said Fred Schneider, a bereavement coordinator at Professional Healthcare Resources.

During the holidays, whether it's a celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, it's important to do whatever helps, said Schneider, who recently led a workshop at the Charlestown retirement community on grief and the holidays.

Although there are no rules for grieving, taking some of the following suggested steps may help during the next month:

• Make a plan.

It's bound to be a different day. Talk with friends and relatives about what traditions to continue and what to do new. Continue the family dinner Mom loved or opt for a trip. Go to your usual church or try a different service.

• Make time to grieve.

Visit the cemetery, light a candle or even leave an empty chair at the table if that is comforting.

"The goal is not to forget that person, but to redefine our relationships," Schneider said. "Now we carry them in our hearts."

Tears are OK, Schneider said. "If you've never loved, you never have to cry," he said. "If you do, then I guarantee you'll have to cry."

Do not hesitate if you want to speak about the deceased, Rubinstein said.

"A public expression of grief and feelings about it is a good thing," he said.

• Be with people who care.

"You don't have to accept every invitation you get," Schneider said.

If a gathering becomes too much, go home with a friend or get outside and some air.

"Lean on the people who really care," he said. "Avoid the people who are going to give you grief."

• Beware of "stinkin' thinkin."

Make an effort to appreciate the presence of those with you even as you grieve, Schneider said.

Otherwise, he said, "you're missing out on the here and now."

• Concentrate on the meaning of the season.

Schneider quotes Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who became a Catholic nun (and saint) and who died in a Nazi death camp: "The Star of Bethlehem is a star that shines in a Dark Night."

• If the pain doesn't fade, seek counseling.

"There's no time limit on grief," Schneider said.

But those who mourn should expect to feel the pain fade over time.

• Take care of yourself.

"Self-care is not selfish," Schneider said. "This is a time in your life when you really need to take care of yourself."

Professional Healthcare Resources offers a monthly "Bridges" program at Charlestown. The Jan. 26 session at 1 p.m., will feature Deborah Baer discussing "The Many Faces of Grief." For information, call 410-73

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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