Helping a grieving person during the holiday season 
Submitted by Bob Belaire

Don't be afraid to discuss a death or divorce, a grief expert advises

The holidays are approaching. Joyous times. Festive times. When families and friends celebrate the passage of another year and the coming of a new one. But not everyone will feel like celebrating. If this is the first year since the death of a loved one or a divorce, the holidays may be difficult. Even if several years have gone by, holidays may still be painful and awkward for a grieving person. Though surrounded by family and friends, a grieving person may feel isolated, alone and as if no one understands. As we move toward the holiday season, we'll also be reminded of the losses of September 11. Even those of us not directly affected by the attacks will probably feel some of that overwhelming sadness.

How grief feels

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It's marked by conflicting emotions that result from a change in a familiar pattern of behavior. But from the standpoint of the grieving person, grief may feel like reaching out for someone who's no longer there.

Adapting to the absence of a loved one is difficult enough. But the first holiday season, with its constant reminders of holiday joy and tradition, can be especially painful. At the Grief Recovery Institute, we've talked with thousands of people who told us they wished they could jump from late October right to mid-January. We've heard the same sentiment from people enduring their first holiday season after a divorce.

It's normal for people to worry that they won't be able to handle the pain of that first holiday season, whether the missing loved one is a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling or child. They may even think they'd rather skip holiday gatherings. Those feelings and fears aren't illogical or irrational. They represent a normal, healthy range of emotions about painful loss and our society's limited ability to talk openly and honestly about grief.

Taboo subject

We all experience losses and we all grieve. Yet grief is one of the most off-limits topics for discussion in our society. It seems strange that one of the experiences we're all going to have is the one experience we're ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to talk about. Even more troubling is all the misinformation about grief.

We've been taught to believe that time heals all wounds, so people keep saying, "It just takes time." The griever believes this and waits. But nothing passes except time. People also say, "You have to be strong for the children" (or other family members). So we pass that on to the grievers, who dutifully act strong for the kids, while burying their own feelings deeper and deeper.

We've been socialized to believe that intellectual remarks will help with emotional conflict. So people say, "Don't feel bad, he led such a full life." Maybe he did, but the griever is in emotional turmoil, and that comment isn't helpful.

Recovery from loss is achieved by a series of small and correct choices made by the griever. And none of these common remarks help the griever take those correct and necessary steps. Rather, the griever is led down a path that leads to more isolation and loneliness.

What grievers want

Several years ago, we conducted a survey that asked: "What is the best way to act around someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one?" From the multiple-choice answers, 98 percent of respondents chose: "Act as if nothing had happened."

We also surveyed people who had experienced the death of a loved in the past five years: "In the weeks and months immediately following the death of your loved one, what did you most want and need to do?" Ninety-four percent responded: "Talk about what happened and my relationship with the person who died."This holiday season, there will be plenty of hurting people who, given the opportunity, will want to talk about someone they miss. You'll be a most cherished friend or family member if the grieving person feels safe to talk about what's foremost on his mind. If the person doesn't want to talk about it, don't be offended. A safe start At the very least, bring up the topic and allow the grieving person to decide if it's okay to talk about it. It might seem awkward to do this - many people don't know how to broach the subject. So here's a simple opener that's neither an interrogation nor a command: "I heard about the death in your family. I can't imagine what this has been like for you." You'll notice it's a statement, and using the word "imagine" invites an answer without asking a probing question. Over the years, we've found the word "imagine" to be the single most open-ended emotional word in the English language. It implies that whatever the griever says will be acceptable. It implies that whatever the griever says won't be judged or criticized. Those are important safeguards for the griever, who's quite aware of comments or questions that imply he's wrong or defective for having emotions associated with the loss.

Just use your own memory and experience to recall how important it was to feel safe when you were struck by a painful loss. You may remember feeling hurt and confused when people said the wrong thing or avoided the topic. If a friend gets a new sports car, we wouldn't dream of not asking all about it. We know they want to tell us. We should adopt a parallel notion after something sad or upsetting happens.

If people don't feel safe to talk, they may seek unhealthy ways to try to soothe themselves, including alcohol, drugs and food. something in plentiful supply at holiday time.

Take a chance

Communication has its risks. Bringing up a loss - yours or someone else's - may not be welcome. Good taste and timing are important. For instance, just as Grandpa starts to carve the turkey, don't blurt out, "How have you been since Grandma died? "From personal experience, I can tell you that it doesn't make sense not to mention someone important to me. My mother died nine years ago on the day before Thanksgiving. That holiday hasn't been the same since. But I take the opportunity to toast my mom and say how much I miss her. Invariably, others at the table start talking about people they miss. The stories and the memories are filled with laughter and tears.

The ability to communicate emotions openly and clearly, happy or sad, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being human. It's tragic to exclude from discussion those people who were so important in our past. Fearing sad feelings can deprive us of a treasure trove of memories attached to relationships with people who've died. Overcoming this fear, especially during the holidays, allows you to claim the full memory of the person you're missing. You might be surprised to discover that even though there may be sadness, there will be plenty of joy as well.