The field of elder law is extremely rewarding in so many ways, but on occasion, we are reminded of the reality of some of the work we do. And it hits home especially hard during the holiday season.
A family that we came to know well lost their father in early November a few years ago. The widow and her son and daughter came in to speak about probate but the conversation quickly turned to their loss and the holiday season – and what Christmas would be like without their father.
“My dad was not a big guy, yet he seemed larger than life in so many ways,” said his senior son Tom. “He went through the Korean War and did a tour of Vietnam, so he seemed invincible to us. When he came back in the late 60’s, he couldn’t wait to get back to his job in Newport. He loved that city and every Christmas season, he would gather us up and we would take a ride through the city to see the holiday lights. Then there was a department store he would take us to for a visit with Santa Claus. We would walk out with a candy cane and dad telling us to behave ourselves.”
“But what really excited him was when they started decorating the mansions
and opening them up for the public. We would go every year, sometimes twice. I remember how beautiful they were,” Tom continued. “And every year, we would hear the same stories about the owners of the mansions and how they took advantage of their workers. He would call them gluttons and then end his speech with the same words – ‘they were so rich, yet so very poor’. I guess he fashioned himself a philosopher.”
“That was how he was,” added Gloria, his widow in her eighties. “He was always looking out for the regular guy. He hated seeing someone take advantage of another because of where they happened to be at that time in their lives. Every Thanksgiving, he would drop off clothes and shaving supplies at the Salvation Army for the guys who had drinking problems. That kind of thing was so important to him, right up to the end.”
“When he died just before Thanksgiving, I think we all were devastated,” said his daughter Cheryl. “He struggled with dementia for years and we thought that we had prepared ourselves for his passing, but it hit us as if we had no idea it was coming. I mean, it has left such a hole and now seeing the Christmas lights, well, it’s just hard.”
“To experience the holiday without the one person who made Christmas come alive for our family is just tough, very tough,” said Tom. “I guess our hearts are just broken.”
“I don’t think we can even have a Christmas this year, what’s there to celebrate?” Cheryl said.
The tale of this family is not unique as thousands of families experience a devastating loss just before or during the holiday season. Dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult at any time but when it happens at this time of year, the grief is compounded. Whether it’s a sudden heart attack or an "expected" passing as with the family we spoke about previously, the loss of that person changes the way the family observe the holidays.
For the family we mentioned earlier, Gloria and her husband were together for over a half a century before his death. Imagine, over 50 Christmases as a couple -- with and without the children – had come to an end. How are they to cope?
The feelings are raw and random. One moment sad and the next, numbness. There is confusion, anger and disbelief. Visitors don’t know what words to say while the grieving person tries to put on a good face but fights back tears as emotions like anger, resentment and guilt bubble up without warning.
The children know it’s Christmas, but something is just not right as the adults who are usually in control seem so weak and scared to them. But, like all things, people evolve as do holiday traditions without the loved one present. No, it will never be the same – nor should it be. So how do you get through the season? Here are some suggestions for the bereaved.
It's OK to grieve. Don’t allow someone else during this season to dictate
how grieving should occur. Everyone does it their own way and on their own time. There is nothing wrong with feeling sadness during Christmas especially at a family affair where an empty chair now sits or a family tradition is practiced without the loved one. It is especially difficult the first year and even in subsequent years. And don’t believe the well wisher who says there will be “closure”. There is no closure, there is acceptance and then life goes on. Your loved one will always have a special place in your heart and mind – that space is never closed. That’s what makes memories worth celebrating.
Know what you really want. Maybe getting together for a party is not what you need right now. Perhaps being alone is not the answer either. Think about what you want – this is not the time to consider the feelings of others. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into something you are not ready for. Once you make your decision, speak with your family or friends and let them know why you made your choice. Remember, whether you are alone or with others, grief is a process that you need to go through. Know what you really want to do.
Stay Healthy. Beating yourself up over the fact that a loss has occurred or refusing to eat or sleep does not make things any better and can create additional stress on other family members who are now worrying about you. Following as normal a routine as possible helps in keeping some semblance of normalcy during a chaotic situation.
The Christmas dinner. Your house has always been the holiday gathering place for the family, so should it go on during a time like this? You may want to rethink it. Do you really need the stress of planning a menu, seating arrangements, entertainment and hours of cooking? Those who care about you will certainly understand why this may not be such a good idea. Don’t be afraid to pass on it this year.
Go ahead and make a change. Doing the holidays differently is not disrespectful to the one you lost. Trying to emulate the same tradition without the loved one who was an integral part of it can make things more painful. That was a special memory with that person and needs to remain that way. New activities give a chance to make new memories while allowing you to cherish the old ones.
It’s OK to talk. Sitting around a table without the loved one and saying nothing about them or even acknowledging that they are gone is uncomfortable and wrong. It’s OK to talk about past holiday events, fun times everyone had together and even laugh at some of the things that made you love them all the more. When we stop acknowledging that person, that’s when they are really lost to everyone who loved them.
And what if you are a family member or a friend? How do you handle spending the holiday with someone who has lost a loved one? Try this.
Silence speaks loudest. A grieving person will usually spill out all kind
of information about the loss. Some of it will make no sense, some will sound like anger and some will be raw emotions flowing from deep inside. Listen without judgement, no matter how much you want to comment. Don’t give advice, remember everyone is different in how they process grief and loss. By allowing the person to discuss this, it helps in acceptance of the loss and the ability to move on with life.
Watch their behaviors. If the person is not eating or sleeping for lengthy periods of time or withdrawing from friends and family, they may be heading for a depressive episode. In such a case, stop by more often, invite them to dinner or a movie, call them more often. If this behavior continues, they may need psychological assistance.
What does the person want? If a person who lost a loved one is coming to Christmas dinner, ask them how they want the loss to be handled. Some families have set an empty place for the deceased and shared stories, others toasted their life, some said a prayer -- there are many ways to deal with the loss but make sure you get the permission of the bereaved before you plan such an event.
Does the grieving person need a hand? After someone’s death, confusion reigns. We have seen a bereaved person move an object back and forth across a room multiple times while talking about the loss and then ask where the object is when they are done. Making a phone call and asking if there is anything you can do to help prepare for the holidays is a good place to start. There may be cleaning, baking, decorating or addressing Christmas cards that need to be done. And besides the task, your company provides an ear and a heart for the bereaved person to share with.
Try something new, it’s alright. When the grieving person tries to relive the event shared by the deceased loved one, it will never turn out the same way. How can it? The person they did it with is no longer there. So offer some fresh ideas, some new traditions and begin building new memories while acknowledging the importance of the old ones.
How do we handle children who have lost a parent, grandparent or another family member?
Let them talk. Kids will talk and ask questions. They have feelings and
although they struggle at times with the concept of death, they certainly know something terrible has happened. Explain this to them and let them share their memories of the loved one. In fact, kids have pretty unique ways of telling stories and their innocence can help brighten a very difficult time.
Visit the final resting place. This may or may not be a good idea. If the loss is new, it may be better to let the kids sit with the memories rather than see the cemetery. We had one family tell us that they decided to take the children to the grave for the holiday and the ground was still freshly dug up. This led to one of the children becoming extremely emotional and demanding that mommy “take that dirt off of Poppa.” Going to the final resting place may work for some, but think it through first.
Don’t destroy the magic of Christmas for the children. Always keep in mind that the season is so special because of the kids. Although the adults may be grieving and feeling the pain, kids may not. Acknowledge that and allow them to have their time. Enjoy the family, it’s really OK.
To sum it up, time does indeed help heal most things, including loss. We need to be comfortable admitting that and comfortable sitting with someone who is grieving, Give them permission to feel what they feel and support them in the process. Some days will be better than others, some events will elicit deep emotions while others barely cause a stir, family milestones like marriages and births will dredge up feelings of loneliness while holidays will come and go accompanied by a multitude of feelings. Eventually, time will pass and sadness will fade, but our relationships with those we love never really end as long as we keep them in our hearts and minds.
After all, isn’t that what your loved one would have wanted?
Below is a handout with tips on handling loss during the holiday season. Please click on the image and download and print.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.