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The first Christmas after

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Dec. 13, 2007, 12:46 p.m.)




The images of happy people living the happy season together are everywhere. In the stores, on television, in songs--everywhere.

But you're feeling anything but. This year hasn't been one for the photo album. It's been a year of loss of the worst kind.

This year you've lost your spouse, child or other important loved one. And now you're supposed to paste on a smile and appear celebratory. Just the mere thought is draining.

When someone's missing, the empty spot they left behind feels even emptier at this time of year. Knowing that they're in a far better place doesn't help us miss them less.

Whether they died last month or two years ago, you have a lot to get through.

Experts--those who have lived it and those who make their careers in the field--have plenty of advice. And they're quick to point out that their advice is for those who are experiencing it firsthand and those who love them.

From the starting gate, recognize the impossibility of ever returning to that "normal."

"Most people who experience the loss of a spouse or a child have no idea how profound and painful their grief is going to be," says Shannon Finger, bereavement coordinator and chaplain for Rainbow Hospice Care, Jefferson.

"When you have this kind of loss, you come out of that grief a different person. It does change you."

Finger has a presentation she created just for the holiday season and has been talking with people in our area going through their first Christmas after.

"People say they're getting through OK, but they aren't," she said. "They're crying themselves to sleep and many days they may not even care if they're alive themselves."

People don't expect it to hurt so bad. Sometimes they never heal. But it shouldn't--and doesn't have to--be that way. Those who we're missing would never want that for us.

The following suggestions were compiled by Finger, Mary Smarslik of Compassionate Friends of Walworth County and W.N. Bull, funeral director and author.

Take what sounds helpful, leave what doesn't and, hopefully, a few will help make your first Christmas after a little better.

--- Change some traditions forever or just for a while. "We always had a big Christmas Eve at our house," Smarslik said. "That year we didn't."

That was the first Christmas after her son, Jay, died in a motorcycle accident 20 years ago.

Changing, rearranging and even skipping some traditions can help. The old way may hurt too much and there's no reason to put yourself through that.

--- Keep some traditions. Favorite foods, songs or activities of the lost loved one can be comforting. Grandma's fudge hasn't missed a Christmas, even though she hasn't been to one in 20 years. It's a great way of keeping our love for that person alive.

--- Keep a manageable schedule. Don't over-schedule yourself. Carefully choose what you will do, then do your best. Nobody is expecting you to be more than what you are.

"People say they don't want to go somewhere and make everybody sad," Finger said. "But choose at least one or two things that won't be too emotionally draining.

"If someone insists, just say, 'This Christmas is very different than in the past and I'm not going to be there this year.'"

--- It's OK to skip the holiday letters or cards. Signing cards minus a name or writing a letter that says something more than, "What happened this year is Chet died," may be impossible and doesn't have to be done.

Nothing is expected of you; your friends and family will understand and no explanation is necessary.

--- The stocking. "Stockings were another big thing," Smarslik remembers. "Do I hang all of them or what? I didn't want people to forget him."

She decided to hang Jay's stocking, and she, her husband John and their three daughters wrote something about him and put it in his stocking. On Christmas Eve they read them and remembered him.

"It helped so much," she says. "Then he wasn't forgotten and everybody wasn't trying to hold it inside alone."

Some find it comforting to look up and see their stocking, but if that's not the case, then don't do it. Or don't hang anyone's stocking at all. One woman said she felt better sleeping with her daughter's stocking under her pillow.

--- Avoid places that may be difficult. People say malls are particularly hard. You see things you would buy for the one who is gone, happy couples when you are no longer a couple, or the cherub-faced little boy who looks like the one you lost. Shopping online or by mail order works just as well.

--- Seek support. People overwhelmingly encourage talking with others who have been through this. Support groups, or if groups aren't comfortable, individual counseling is vital.

"The group helped so much," Smarslik says. "You can talk freely or you can just listen because there's more than just you sitting there."

The group helped her see that she could be OK again.

"There you're not the only one. You're not alone."

Support groups, clergy counselors and county health and human services professionals are great resources, as close as a phone call.

--- Feel the feelings. The only way to get through is to experience the feelings. But sometimes the grief needs to be put on the back burner to allow yourself permission to feel good. That doesn't necessarily mean not thinking about your lost one. In fact, incorporating them into good feelings may be very healing.

Some suggestions are creating scrapbooks of their life, a memorial Web site, journaling or planning a memory garden to plant in the spring. It allows you to think about them and remember them in life and not just that they're gone.

--- Take care of yourself. You can't heal if you're not taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Eating well, getting enough rest and exercise, talking to someone and keeping your obligations manageable are vital.

Make yourself take the time to be nice to yourself. Do something that makes you feel good. Read, watch a movie, fix that broken something, learn to knit, redecorate a room, listen to music or take a hot bath. Just do something that makes you feel better--it's a must.

--- Let people help you. Truth is, nothing will help, you just want them back, but let others "do something." Everyone knows houses must be cleaned, dogs walked, groceries bought and meals prepared.

Those who love you want to help but many times don't know how. Should they bring up the person's name or the holiday subject at all? Will it hurt or help now? What about later? They can't know if you don't tell them. And if you don't know, it's OK to say just that, Bull says.

"Give them a hug," Smarslik suggests. "Most of the time you don't even have to say anything.

 "A hug means an awful lot."

--- You might get some relief helping others. Sometimes people feel better if they help others. Some ideas are serving a community meal, gathering or wrapping gifts for charity or caroling at a retirement home or hospital. Good places to look for ideas are newspaper calendars and community Web sites.

Smarslik has found making herself available to others going through loss extremely helpful.

"When I was first going through this 20 years ago there weren't any support groups," she said. "That's why we formed one. You need to have people to talk to and to tell you you're not crazy."

"(Helping others) gives their loss a sense of meaning-they didn't go through all that for nothing. And it gives the other person a real place for strength and security," Finger adds.

--- Do what you are doing. "Make the most of what you are making or fixing or creating," Bull writes. "You will be less tired and more peaceful. The same applies to cleaning, decorating, washing, playing, etc. If I am doing what I am doing, I won't be thinking of my sadness."

--- Honor them: Do something for the sake of remembering them in life. Light a candle or put out a special decoration.

"It's good to tell stories," said Finger. "It keeps the person there, keeps that relationship alive; it keeps that connection.

"Everybody is missing that person, everybody is thinking about them. It's better to just say you miss them and get it out there. Then go on and have Christmas."

--- Give yourself permission to enjoy yourself. When you do decide which things you're going to do, let yourself enjoy it. Enjoy the children's play, talk and laugh if it feel good.

--- It's OK to cry. Cry if you want to. It takes the pressure off. Breathe deeply and let it all out. Too much of anything isn't good, but a little definitely is.

"It's OK to cry," Finger agrees. "But then we have to get through it together--certainly not alone."

"You'll always have that hole in your heart, always." Smarslik says. "Your life has totally changed and it will never be the same because your perspective is different.

"Even to this day if something is said, or I think of something, the tears can come. But you get better.

"Time does heal."

Your sorrow may never end completely, but acknowledging the depth of loss you're experiencing and taking steps to take care of yourself will lead to what the one you've lost would have wished for you during this special time of the year--peace and healing.

If you're questioning if your grief is normal or would like to talk with someone, Finger encourages telephone calls. She can be reached at (920) 674-6255 or visit www.rainbowhospicecare.org.

Smarslik is also available for support at 248-4398, as is Nancy Hoffmann, 473-4788. Compassionate Friends of Walworth County, www.compassionatefriends.org, meet the fourth Monday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at 104 S. Broad St., Elkhorn.

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