Holidays can bring extra grief for some

Are the holidays making your grief worse? You're not alone

There were the two Christmas trees — a "fancy" one in the living room and one with all the family ornaments in the basement.

There was the smell of cookies baking and the meals, gifts and warmth that permeated Jeanne Costantini's home during the holidays.

So when she died suddenly of cancer two months before Christmas in 2012, her daughter Cara Detwiler didn't know how to face the season her mother always made so special.

"It was the second week of December and I was in Target, and I became so overwhelmed with the Christmas decorations and songs and families around me that I just started crying," said the 33-year-old teacher at Johnnycake Elementary School in Catonsville.

"I got home and went to my husband and said I just can't be here for Christmas," Detwiler said. "We booked a trip to Disney World."

Counselors say that's not an uncommon reaction for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Hard feelings can be made harder around the holidays when traditions are upended and everyone else is so joyful.

And for young adults there could be other hurdles, the counselors said. Some in their 20s and 30s are still dependent on parents who died, or they are still somewhat transient and without a local support system. Close friends who are available may never find the right words.

"Peers often have no idea how to respond or be of support," said Litsa Williams, co-founder of the Baltimore-based blog whatsyourgrief.com, popular with many young adults. "Additionally, many younger grievers who go to grief support groups find that they are much younger than the other participants, which can make it more difficult to connect."

It's much more common, for example, for older people to be widowed: A 2013 U.S. Census report shows that about 11 million people 65 and older have lost a spouse but just 295,000 people aged 20 to 39 have lost one.

But research shows that people of all ages can suffer damage to their physical and emotional health when they lose a loved one.

Several studies have shown that heart attacks, strokes and other maladies are more common in seniors who lose a spouse, for example. Detwiler's father weathered an extended sickness soon after her mother died, adding to the stress.

Children and young adults who lose a parent are at increased risk for premature death, according to a study published this summer in the journal PLoS Medicine.

And a 2009 study published in the Journal of Family Issues found that adults who lose a loved one can face a host of psychological problems, as well as physical health issues. And daughters take their mother's loss harder, while sons suffer more after losing their fathers.

Yet support for those grieving a loss has often focused only on older adults, said Williams.

That's what Williams discovered when she was in college and her father died. Her partner on the blog, Eleanor Haley, who lost her mother just after graduating, faced the same problem.

They turned to the Internet, a comfortable medium for them and other young adults, to start their support group.

"We both found very little support, and then as we moved into the professional world of supporting grievers, we continued to recognize how limited the resources were for 20- and 30-somethings who were grieving," she said. "We started our site when we were both 30-ish, and a huge focus was to make sure it was relatable to younger grievers."

Williams said the tide is turning as more colleges are offering grief support groups and others are offering groups specific to young widows and widowers or young adults who lost an infant or miscarried.

There also are support groups for those of all ages coping with grief during the holidays, said Laurel Goodrick, a clinical grief counselor at Gilchrist Hospice Care. She said they are attracting young adults suffering their first loss.

"They will ask themselves, 'How am I going to feel if my grandmother or mother is not there? How will I deal? Will I bring everyone down if I don't laugh and have a good time?' " Goodrick said.

"They're in survival mode and thinking how will they get through the day," she said. "Going through the holidays can demand different things and shut down the grief process."

Goodrick said well-meaning friends and family may tell them to forget about their grief or say unintentionally insensitive things such as, "She was old and lived a good life," or "She's in a better place."

She said supporting a grieving person can be a simple as saying you are sorry for their loss and asking how they are. Goodrick also suggested expressing interest in the people who have died and the griever's relationship to them.

"The person will walk away knowing the other person cared enough to ask," she said.

Specifically at the holidays, Goodrick suggested discussing in advance how events should be handled, especially if traditions are changing.

She said maybe the family has a buffet and eats in the living room so an empty dining room chair isn't obvious. Goodrick also said those grieving should be allowed to skip events or leave early, though she added it's important to invite them.

It can also be meaningful to remember someone who has died by lighting a candle, offering a toast or making a contribution to a favorite charity, Goodrick said.

There's no timetable for grieving, and holidays may pose a problem for years, she said.

Mostly, though, she advised those grieving to take care of themselves.

"Get rest and exercise, and ask for help if you want it and tell people what they can do for you," she said. "Maybe it's just taking you to the movies. Don't assume people know because they don't. …The 20- and 30-somethings are pretty resilient, but grief isn't the exclusive domain of older folks."

Detwiler agrees. She's now going on her third Christmas without her mother, and she said she no longer needs "to run away." But losing her mother, the linchpin in the family, still makes the holiday tough.

She's thankful for her husband, who she said is every bit as warm and generous as her mother, as well as her students and her brother and father, who still lives in her childhood home nearby. She also plans to rely on friends from a support group she joined just after her mother died and the online community at whatsyourgrief.

Detwiler said people haven't always said the right thing, and often have had a tone of pity that made her chafe. But mostly, she said, she appreciated that people haven't pretended everything is OK, have offered help with daily chores and have spent time with her.

For those who don't know what to say or do, she suggested dropping the tone and just asking what those grieving need. Close friends could just "barge in," she said.

For those grieving during the holiday, she said, "More than anything, whatever you need to get through the tough time is fine and good."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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