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‘The most difficult time of the year’: Grief and getting through the holidays

December 10, 2017 GMT

On a recent Wednesday, 20 people somberly filed into a private room at Watkins Manor and sat in a circle of chairs.

Next to a pile of sugar cookies near the door sat a stack of small books titled “How Will I Get Through The Holidays?”

Each person in the room had lost someone they loved and each was looking for ways to face the holidays without them. Winona Health Hospice coordinator Sheila Skeels has been offering the yearly event for about 15 years with the goal of preparing the bereaved for what they may expect to experience during the holidays and some tips on how to navigate the first holiday after a loss.

Before the event got started, Winona area resident Amy Sixty walked into the room with her daughter Olivia — who was roped into going by coincidence — and grabbed two books. Amy settled into a chair and almost immediately the woman next to her asked who it was she was remembering.

“My dad,” she said as she fidgeted with the book.

In June, George Duellman died at the age of 74 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — a lung disease that block airflow and make it difficult to breathe. He died in his home after a month of hospice.

“I’m so proud of you for stepping out of your house,” Sheila said to the group, most of whom looked tense and nervous. “For some people, this is the most difficult time of the year.”

A warm smile grew on Sheila’s face as she said in a quiet loving voice, “Go gentle on yourself. It will get better, I promise.”

For nearly the next hour, Sheila, chaplain Ronia Frelund and the group went chapter by chapter through the book’s tips on how to face the holidays.

Tip: Accept your pain and feel what you feel

“Your pain shows how much you loved them and how much they loved you,” Ronia said to the group. Pained looks grew on some faces and tears started to form.

Sheila added, “We have so many feelings, and they aren’t right or wrong; they just are.”

At that, Olivia leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder, her straight blond hair falling over the both of them. Amy snuggled a little closer and put her hand on her daughter’s leg. For Olivia, her grandpa’s death was her first major loss — she was too young to remember when Amy’s mother died in 2000.

“Express those feelings,” Ronia said. “Go ahead and cry. Cry on your friend’s shoulder.”

Amy nodded, her eyes staring off into nowhere.

During the month of hospice, Amy and her sister took time off from work and spent every moment they could taking care of their dad. At times it was beautiful — having dance parties next to his hospital bed they had moved downstairs and cheering him up with laughter. At times it was incredibly hard.

“We slept with him in the same room on the floor, but every little move he’d make, we’d pop up just scared,” Amy said during an interview the following week.

Tip: Plan ahead

“You can make the holiday what you want to,” Sheila said. “In grief there’s so little you can control, but this one you can.”

Sometimes that means not going through with the normal holiday traditions, Sheila said. A person grieving should plan to do whatever is best for them — maybe going to someone else’s house for the holidays or do something totally different just for the first year.

“Bring in new traditions to family,” Ronia said. “Ask the children what they want to do.”

Olivia sat up in her chair, firmly grabbed her book, and circled a section that said “give yourself the freedom to change plans as you go.”

In Amy’s family at Christmas, the tradition is to hand out the presents first and put them all into a pile next to each person — grandpa, or “Poppy” rather, many times had the biggest pile. Then they’d go around in a circle and each open a present.

Olivia had scribbled in the book that they should roll dice instead.

“Because then it’s not, ‘Oh, Poppy isn’t here, he missed his turn,’” Amy said later.

Tip: Remember

to remember

“I love this one,” Sheila said. “We want to remember these people!”

Sheila shared that when her mother died she decided to keep her mother’s cross in her pocket and fiddle with in whenever she needed a moment to find strength or needed to remember her mom.

But there are lots of ways to remember, Sheila said, adding that a person could do something their loved one used to do, or get creative.

“It might be a phrase,” Sheila said. “Grandpa always says …”

Amy smiled. She explained later that her dad had many sayings, and she’s thankful the family still says them. She’s looking forward to hearing more over the holidays and laughing with family.

Tip: Be gentle

with yourself

The day Amy’s dad died, she and her sister knew the time was coming.

“His breathing was just different,” she said.

Her dad’s deacon had been stopping by throughout the month to pray over him — at one point spending a couple hours with him and his daughters, singing, praying and shedding tears — and on the day he died the deacon happened to stop by.

As the deacon walked away, Amy held her dad’s hand. Her sister held his other. They grabbed each other’s empty hand and watched together his chest go up and down.

Just as the deacon opened the door to leave, George took his last breath.

“I got to be there for my dad,” Amy said as she wiped away a couple of loose tears. “What a blessing.”

After her father’s death, Amy said it was tough to let herself truly grieve. She wanted to stay strong for her family, especially her daughters.

Back at the event, looking around to make eye contact with everyone in the room, Ronia said, “Treat yourself with love. Look at yourself as if in third person. How would you treat someone else going through this pain? Treat yourself like you would for them.”

Amy needed to hear that, she said.

“I learned I need to give myself time to grieve,” she said after the event.

Her voice started to crack.

“I need to take care of myself,” she said.

Amy said she’s thankful for the event, especially that her daughter went. Some of the tips she knew, some she didn’t, but she couldn’t have explained them to her daughter the way Sheila, Ronia and the book did, she said. And she would have never realized that she could both feel her feelings and embrace her grief while still thinking of her children, she said.

“That’s what really helped me,” she said. “Now I know from going to that event to talk to my kids and ask what they want to do rather than assume we’ll do the same thing this year.”

She continued.

“How neat that we have that in our community,” she said with a smile. “It was really good. I’m glad I went.”