It happened a few times during these past two weeks. As Labor Day approached I flipped on the television only to see ads about Christmas. The first time was in the last week of August when an ad was aired about the upcoming Christmas movies. The second time it happened that week, the station aired an ad about Christmas sales. Just after Labor Day I saw a post on Facebook when someone reminded lookers that with Labor Day behind us, Christmas was on the horizon. So since the thought of  holidays is already on the minds of those who grieve, I will jump in and address the subject now.
I tend to see holidays through the eyes of loss. Working with those who are newly bereaved as I do and being bereaved myself, I can easily put myself in the shoes of those who are grieving (as much as that is possible) and I know how difficult it is to give thought to the holidays.  But this blog post is not really for those who are grieving, it is for those who know someone who is grieving. For those who are grieving the loss of a child, spouse, parent or anyone significant to them, the thought of the holidays is pretty overwhelming. That feeling, however, does not just apply to the newly bereaved.

It has been over four years since Bill died and believe me, holidays are difficult...perhaps they always will be filled as they are with memories, loneliness, empty chairs and so much more. To be reminded of them in late August or early September is not helpful. In fact, it is hurtful. We all know that autumn leads to these holidays. Reminders are far from necessary.
All holidays can be challenging for those who grieve. This includes birthdays, anniversaries and so many more including days unique to each bereaved person. Actually Labor Day never felt very important to us when Bill was alive but after he died, well, a holiday is a holiday. Think about the parents who have lived through Labor Day and the first day of school when their child died over the summer or even ten summers ago. Labor Day becomes a reminder. "Back to school" ads, kids waiting for school buses...all of those act as grief triggers. Three day weekends drag on and even though a person might attend even two or three events, many come home to an empty, silent house and hours alone with their memories and sadness.
I know for a fact that many bereaved find themselves abandoned by friends and even family.  People flee because they do not know what to say though sincere in wanting to help. I can't begin to tell you how many clients feel excluded by those they counted on most. This begins to occur soon after a loss. There are many probable reasons for this including people's reluctance to deal with someone's sadness along with the discomfort of not knowing what to say or how to "fix" the pain. Many couples socialize with other couples and yet when a man or woman is no longer part of a pair, they too often become excluded from these circles As these holidays approach, keep this in mind.
No one is suggesting that the world come to a stop and ignore holidays. But be sensitive. The thought of approaching holidays coupled with being bereaved can result in a huge increase of sadness and loneliness especially for the newly bereaved. One may wonder how long a person is "newly bereaved". Grief is unique to each person. There are no rules or time lines and hopefully no judgments or pressure to "move on". Dreaded words to a bereaved person. If a child has died, getting to a place where a parent is not totally raw with pain takes a long, long time. The same is true when a spouse dies. The bottom drops out of life. Society seems to consider someone newly bereaved for about 6 weeks to perhaps 6 months. In some cases it can be stretched to a year when actually the pain of loss is raw for many bereaved for at least  two years because the second year is more difficult than the first in many instances. Ask anyone who has lost a child or spouse or someone significant and they will most likely tell you that it was/is in the second year that the loss really hit hard as the fog lifted, as people disappeared and as they became deeply aware of their loss as well as the inevitable secondary losses.    
Be tender with others as the autumn months approach. Change of seasons coupled with the thought of approaching holidays creates vulnerability in the bereaved. And there are more folks out there who are bereaved than anyone knows because so many of them have learned to hide their pain for fear of being criticized,  judged or worse yet, lectured. This in spite of people truly caring about them.

Reach out to those around you who have had a loss...a week ago or even years ago. Don't cave to the excuses many use: "I don't want to make them feel sad." "Oh, it was over two years ago." "I don't want to bring it up when perhaps they are not thinking about it." "I don't want to make them cry." Believe me, they are thinking about it if it is a recent loss and if not, they still think about it often especially as holidays approach. It is ever present especially in those first several years. It sits in their hearts just as Bill's death sits in mine and is always present in subtle and not so subtle ways.

The grief community, both the bereaved and the caring professionals (bereavement counselors, educators, Hospice workers, nurses and more...many of whom are bereaved themselves) are helping to change the way society sees and deals with grief, sadness, pain, and loss. Be one of the change agents. Take a risk and reach out, ask someone about their loss. Most will eagerly talk about it. One of the greatest gifts I got after Bill died was one of his caregivers telling me he would like to come over and just listen to stories about Bill and show him pictures of our life together. He followed up and for 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon, we did just that. However many will not talk about their pain. Many protect themselves from those who say things that only hurt more. Some do not know how to deal with their own grief so they bury it as best they can. Hence the need to educate ourselves about what to say or not say. Mostly it is about listening, compassion and caring.

Everyone on this planet is going to die and everyone is going to or has lost a significant person. Why do we want to ignore what is universal?


09/08/2014 6:01pm

A beautiful and helpful article, Mary. It's hard to know how to handle holidays in the beginning. My family tried being with friends the first year and that was difficult. They tried to distract us with holiday cheer, but deep down, we didn't want to be distracted. The second year, we stayed home. Friends who had been with us at my husband's death stopped by but my family set the tone. I created a family ritual of remembrance that second year, and we look forward to that when we gather in late December each year. That first year, everything felt wrong about holidays. It's gotten better, but they're still hard. Thank you for helping me remember I'm not alone in this experience.

Mary Friedel-Hunt MA LCSW
09/10/2014 10:03am

The holidays are indeed a challenge. Each year they are different for me but one thing I have learned is that I think I would rather be alone than in some other situations. The weather prevents my brother from coming up here sometimes and right now Bentley's health will prevent me from leaving. So we shall see how this one goes. It is better each year but not great. YOU are NOT alone at all.

05/20/2016 8:28am

you are saying the truth when we celebrate the day or the day like a labor day the history behind this day. You tell the history in the unique way i can not read that kind of stuff before thank you so much for sharing the truth.


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