The Empty Chair - Grief and the Holidays
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"The field of elder law is extremely rewarding in so many ways," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "But on occasion, we are reminded about the reality of some of our work, and this hits hardest during the holiday season." One of the realities that Attorney Connelly refers to is coping with the grief of losing a loved one.
"Dealing with the loss of a loved one is never easy, regardless of the time of year," Attorney Connelly stated. "However, attempting to cope during the holiday season can be especially painful when the sights and sounds of the season evoke pleasant and loving memories of the person you have lost. Nothing is more heart-wrenching than seeing an empty chair at the family table."
Grieving a loss is, without a doubt, an extremely painful and deeply personal experience as the waves of emotions can, at times, become overwhelming. During the holiday season, as everyone else goes about their business of shopping, family gatherings, and parties, the memories of a loved one are triggered at every turn, and people feel alone -- very alone. They may feel numb or can't sleep, not wanting company or people around. They could become angry or burst into tears for seemingly no reason at all. These are some of the natural grief responses people feel, all of which are exacerbated during this time of year.
A family that we came to know well lost their father in early November a few short years ago. The widow, her son, and daughter had come in to speak to Attorney Connelly about a probate matter, but the conversation quickly turned to their loss and the holidays – and how this time of year has not been the same without their father.
One Family's Story
"My dad may not have been a big guy, but to me and my siblings, he seemed larger than life in so many ways," shared Tom, his eldest son. "He served two tours in the military, one in Korea and one in Vietnam, so he always appeared invincible to us. When he returned home in the late sixties, he was excited to return to his Newport job. He absolutely loved that city, and every holiday season, he would take us around to see the beautiful holiday lights. Then, there was a department store where he would take us to visit Santa Claus, and we would walk out with a candy cane, with Dad reminding us to behave ourselves."
Tom was always excited when the mansions were decorated and opened to the public. He would visit them every year, sometimes twice. He remembered how beautiful they were, but the family heard the same stories about the owners taking advantage of their workers yearly. Tom would label them as gluttons and end his speech with the words - "they were so rich, yet so very poor".
"He was always looking out for the regular guy," said Gloria, his widow, who is nearing ninety. "He despised the idea of someone taking advantage of another person just because of where they were at that point in their life. Every Christmas, he would deliver clothes and shaving supplies to the Salvation Army for struggling people. This was very important to him, right until 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. It has left such a hole, and seeing the Christmas lights, well, it’s just hard. We accept it, but it never gets easier.”
Tom said, "It's tough experiencing the holiday without the person who made it come alive for our family. Our hearts are broken."
"This family's sadness is not unique as thousands of families experience a devastating loss just before or during the holiday season," said Attorney Connelly. "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, the loss of that person changes the way the family observes the holidays for years to come."
Gloria and her husband were married for over fifty years before he passed away. It's hard to imagine how they will cope, having spent over fifty Christmases together as a couple, with and without their children.
The reality is that the holidays can be a tough time for families who have recently experienced loss. Emotions can be raw and unpredictable, with moments of sadness, pensiveness, numbness, confusion, anger, and disbelief. Attorney Connelly points out that visitors may not know what to say or how to bring up the topic of loss, while the bereaved may struggle to hold back tears as emotions bubble up unexpectedly. This can create an uncomfortable and difficult situation for everyone involved.
The Bereaved Individual
The children can sense that it's the holiday season within the family, but something seems off with Grandma and the other adults in the house. "The kids feel the loss differently, from a safety perspective," said Attorney Connelly. "They see the adults in the house, who always felt strong and protective of them, as weak and vulnerable. Not only do they miss their loved one, but they also feel the insecurity of those who are still present."
However, people and families evolve, as do holiday traditions without loved ones. So, how do you get through the season? Here are some suggestions to help you cope.
1. Everyone Grieves in Their Own Way - Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time, so don't allow someone else to dictate how your grieving should occur or how long it should take. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling sadness during this time of year, especially at a family affair where that empty chair now sits, or a family tradition is practiced without your loved one," Attorney Connelly said. "It is especially difficult during the first year and perhaps even in subsequent years."
It's important to remember that it's not entirely true when someone tells you there will be "closure" after a loss. Acceptance is what one should strive for, and life goes on. Your loved one will always hold a special place in your heart and mind, which is never closed. This is what makes memories worth celebrating and traditions worth remembering.
2. Know What You Really Want - If you're feeling overwhelmed and unsure about what to do, it's okay to take some time to think things through. Don't let anyone pressure you into doing something you're not ready for. Take time to reflect on what you need right now - whether alone or spending time with others. Remember that grief is a process, and going through it in your own way is important. When you've decided, talk to your family or friends, and let them know what you need.
3. Stay Healthy - It's not helpful to blame yourself or deprive yourself of basic needs like food and sleep after experiencing a loss. This behavior doesn't improve the situation and can add stress to other family members who are already worried about you. Maintaining a regular routine can help bring some sense of normalcy during a chaotic time.
4. The Holiday Dinner - Your home has always been the gathering place for holiday celebrations with your family. However, considering the current situation, it may be wise to reconsider hosting such an event. Given the circumstances, is it worth the stress of planning a menu, seating arrangements, entertainment, and hours of cooking? Those who care about you will understand if you decide not to host the event this year or even the next. Take your time and do what you feel is best for you.
5. Make a Change - It's important to understand that doing holidays differently without a loved one is not a sign of disrespect. In fact, trying to replicate the same traditions without the person who was an integral part of it can be painful and uncomfortable. The memories associated with that person should be cherished and not tampered with. Instead, engaging in new activities can help create new memories while allowing you to preserve the old ones.
6. It's OK to Talk - Sitting around saying nothing about the loss or even acknowledging that they are gone is uncomfortable and wrong for everyone. It’s OK to talk about past holiday events and fun times everyone had together, and even laugh at some of the things that made you love them even more. When we stop acknowledging that person, they are lost to everyone who loved them.
For Family and Friends
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 these ideas.
1. Sometimes, Silence Speaks Loudest - When someone is grieving, they may share many details about the loss that can be uncomfortable to hear. According to Attorney Connelly, they may say things that don't make sense, express anger, or reveal raw emotions from within. It's important to listen without judging, even if you want to comment or give advice. Everyone processes grief differently, so it's best to let the person talk and express themselves. This can help them come to terms with their loss and eventually move forward with their life.
2. Be Aware of Their Behaviors - If you notice that a person is not eating or sleeping regularly for a prolonged period or withdrawing from their usual activities and social interactions, it may indicate that they are heading towards a depressive episode. In such a situation, showing them that you care is crucial. You can do this by visiting them more often, inviting them to dinner or a movie, and calling them regularly to check up on them. If you notice that their behavior continues to be unusual, they may need psychological assistance. It is important to encourage them to seek professional help and support them in any way possible.
3. Just What Do They Want - When hosting a Christmas dinner and a guest who recently lost a loved one is attending, it is essential to approach the situation sensitively. Ask the bereaved person how they would like to handle the loss during the event. Different families have different customs and traditions regarding honoring the deceased. Some choose to set an empty place at the table, share stories, or toast to their life. Others may prefer a moment of silence or a prayer. Whatever the choice may be, it is crucial to get the permission of the grieving person before planning any such occasion. Surprising them with a sudden event can be cruel and painful and may ruin the festive atmosphere for everyone. Therefore, it is important to be empathetic and considerate towards those who are still mourning and to create a supportive and understanding environment for them during the holiday season.
4. Offer Help if Needed - It's common to feel lost and overwhelmed after someone passes away. We have witnessed a grieving person repeatedly moving an object back and forth across a room while discussing their loss, only to forget later where they placed it. One way to show support is to call and ask if there is anything you can do to help prepare for the upcoming holidays. There could be tasks such as cleaning, baking, decorating, or addressing Christmas cards that need to be done. By offering your assistance, you not only lend a helping hand but also provide a listening ear and a compassionate heart for the bereaved person to confide in.
5. Let's Try Something New - When the grieving person tries to relive an 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 and 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 or close friend?
1. Let them talk - Kids will talk and ask questions about death and their missing relative. 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 a loved one. In fact, kids have unique ways of telling stories, and their innocence can help brighten a challenging time.
2. Visit the Final Resting Place - This may or may not be a good idea. Letting the kids sit with the memories may be better than seeing the cemetery if the loss is new. 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 -- and you also don't want to be triggered at a time when you are trying to give support to a struggling child.
A Final Word
Remember that the season is so special because of the children. Although 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 things up, time does help heal most things, including the anguish associated with the loss," stated Attorney Connelly. "It's also important to be comfortable admitting that and sitting with someone grieving. Give them permission to feel what they feel and support them in the process, no matter how random their emotions may seem."
"Grief is a journey that is scattered with varying emotions. There will be days when we experience a sense of euphoria, while on other days, we may feel low and despondent," stated Attorney Connelly. "As we move through the process, we will encounter events that will evoke deep emotions, while others may barely cause a stir. Family milestones such as marriages and births may bring about a sense of loneliness, while holidays may come and go accompanied by many emotional responses. Over time, the pain of loss may gradually give way to acceptance, but our relationship with those we love will never really end. We will keep them alive in our hearts and minds by cherishing the memories we shared with them. This is what our loved ones would have wanted, and it is what will keep us going."
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