Surviving the Holidays

Surviving the Holidays


My name is Richard Dew. This is my first attempt at blogging. I am entering this arena because of the COVID pandemic. The usual deaths that fill the obituaries of our newspapers continue to occur. We’ve come to expect them. However, in the last ten months, COVID has produced more than 250,000 additional victims, each with their own collections of bereaved families, friends and associates.

Many in these groups would benefit from a grief support group. The necessary social distancing and isolation have totally disrupted most support groups. The meeting place for my Compassionate Friends group was shut down for eight months. Zoom meetings were poorly attended and minimally helpful. Since resuming meetings, our attendance is less than half of what it had been previously. Many are afraid to attend even socially distance groups. I hope this blog will help those who have lost a loved one from any cause and have no other place to go.

 I have told you why I am writing this. What qualifies me to do so?

For fifty years I led a charmed life. As a physician, I had dealt with many tragedies and deaths. I was touched and saddened every time one occurred. I tried to console and help the victims and their families as best I could. But I was personally unscathed. I had little idea what they were experiencing. Nothing truly bad had ever happened to me.

            Then I learned what I never wanted to know. I was caring for my father who had an accelerated case of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In three months, he went from being an active vibrant man to being paralyzed from the neck down. I was managing fairly well until one morning at 4am my phone rang. An unfamiliar voice informed me my 21-year-old son, Brad, had been murdered. At that moment, sorrow came like a thunder-clap. Six weeks later, my father died.

            After a long up and down grief journey, I adapted to the devastation of their deaths. I’m different now, but I live a happy, productive life.

My goal in writing this blog is threefold:

To help those who have lost a loved one to better understand their grief

To assist them to navigate their grief journey in such a manner that they may emerge emotionally healthy, spiritually at peace, and personally happy

To help those who want to comfort the bereaved to understand what they are experiencing and how best to offer consolation, aid, and relief.

From the outset, you should know I write from a Christian perspective. I cannot separate the spiritual aspects from the rest of my life. That said, many of the insights and suggestions have also proven helpful to non-believers with whom I have worked.

Much of the content comes from my own personal experience. More comes from conversations with attendees of over one hundred talks on coping with grief I have given to lay and professional groups. Most comes from the more than 4000 bereaved parents I have dealt with through The Compassionate Friends, an international support group for families whose children have died

For readers who have lost loved ones, I hope you find this blog helpful. For those seeking information, I hope this assists you in helping others

I hope to have a new blog post each Thursday. I welcome any comments or questions.

Surviving the Holidays

I had originally intended to begin this blog discussing the characteristics and stages of grief. However, the holidays are upon us, and, as noted, Covid has added a quarter of a million newly bereaved families to the ones who have lost loved ones to other causes. I will address this first.

Many grieving families dread the holidays, especially the first year after the death of their loved one.

The holidays are happy, family times. Others’ hearts are filled with thanksgiving and joy in an atmosphere of celebration. For many, the time of preparation and anticipation brings as much enjoyment as the actual celebration.

For the bereaved, the anticipation of the holidays, especially in the first year after the loss of your loved one, will probably fill you with questions, concerns and anxieties. Planning ahead can lessen some of the stress and pain of the holiday season. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions. Most of these came from the experiences of me and my wife, Jean, that first awful holiday season after Brad was killed.

Remind yourself repeatedly that you will survive. You may not believe it now, but you will.

It doesn’t seem so now, but the anticipation of the holiday season is usually more stressful than the day itself.

You may not have the motivation or energy as in past years. Honestly consider each activity decision with respect to your own needs and physical and emotional capabilities. This is not being selfish. It is necessary.

Your emotions will be more unpredictable. You may not be able to turn them on and off. If you need to cry—cry. And don’t apologize.

Be gentle with yourself. You don’t have to live up to others’ expectations.

Select your activities carefully, but don’t isolate yourself. You need others, and they need you. This is easier said than done in this time of isolation and social distancing. Consider and decide which social invitations you will accept and attend. Be sure you want to and have the energy. You are not obligated to attend. If you explain why you may not feel like attending this year, they will usually accept your response.

If an earlier decision doesn’t feel right as the time approaches, it’s OK to change your mind. Be sure to give the host/hostess an honest reason in a timely manner.

Communicate your needs to your family and friends. They will appreciate a cordial letter describing how you are doing and what will and won’t help you, i.e. exchanging gifts, invitations to parties, attending services, etc.

Family traditions are not graved in stone. You may need tweak some, throw out some old ones, or add new ones. That’s OK.  Jean and I wrote our family stating we were not up to shopping, exchanging gifts or family holiday meals. We asked if they wanted to give us a gift, give it to Brad’s memorial fund at his high school or college.

Just because others don’t understand your decisions doesn’t make them wrong.

If you decide to shop but don’t want to face the crowds, shop online.

Ask for, or accept the offer of, others to help wrap gifts, address cards, decorate, clean, etc. People really want to help. They just don’t know how. Allowing them to help could be a meaningful gift that is mutually beneficial.

Just as it’s healthy to cry if you need, it’s also healthy and OK to smile and laugh. You are not being disloyal.

You need to be able to talk about your feelings and needs at this time. Try to find a good listening partner or small group to talk with. If you have been considering attending a support group, do so.

If you find you just can’t cope with the holidays this year, leaving town for a week or so is an option. Jean and I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone in the Smoky Mountains.

Possible ways to add meaning to the holidays

We want our loved one’s death to have some meaning—meaning to us and to others. Any meaning that comes to it must come from those of us who remain. There are as many different ways of finding meaning as there are survivors. The following are a few suggestions. Use some of them if you choose., but the most meaningful are the ones we you develop yourself.

Light a memory candle to burn in the window for the Christmas or Hannukah season.

Place a special ornament on the tree.

Place a candle and a wreath on the grave on Christmas Eve. Jean and I did both of these and continue to do so until this day.

Have a memorial candle for the holiday meal.

Give a donation to a local organization that provides meals or gifts to the underprivileged in memory of your loved one.

May God bless you and give you peace during this holiday season.

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