The Empty Chair - Grieving and the Holidays

"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 the work we do, and this hits hardest during the holiday season." And 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 at any time of the year," stated Attorney Connelly. "But for someone attempting to cope during the holiday season can be especially painful when the sights and sounds of the season elicit pleasant and loving memories of the one you lost. And there is nothing more heartbreaking than the 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 around you goes about their business of shopping, family gatherings, and parties, the memories of your loved one seem to be triggered at every turn and you feel alone -- very alone. You may feel numb or can't sleep, not wanting company or people around you. You 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.

Grief takes no holidays.

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 Christmas has not been the same 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 ’60s, 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 with 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 Christmas, he would drop off clothes and shaving supplies at the Salvation Army for the guys who had things tough. That kind of thing was so important to him, right up to the end.”

Grieving during the holidays can be especially difficult

“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 seeing the Christmas lights, well, it’s just hard, it never gets easier.”

“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.”

"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."

"It's really tough, here are the holidays and yet, the family's emotions are raw and random. One moment sad and pensive, the next, feeling completely numb. There are times of confusion, anger, and even disbelief..." ---Attorney RJ Connelly III

As for the family we mentioned earlier, Gloria and her husband were together for over half a century before his death. Imagine, over fifty Christmases as a couple -- with and without the children – had come to an end. How are they to cope?

Emotions can bubble to the surface

"It's really tough, here are the holidays and yet, a family's emotions are still raw and unpredictable. One moment sad and pensive, the next, feeling completely numb. There are times of confusion, anger, and even disbelief," pointed out Attorney Connelly. "Holiday visitors don't know what to say or how to broach this sudden loss in conversation, the bereaved try to hold back tears as these random emotions bubble to the surface without warning. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable time for everyone."

The Bereaved Individual

Within the family, the children know it's Christmas but something just doesn't seem right with Grandma and the other adults in the house. "The kids feel loss a bit differently, feeling from a safety perspective," said Attorney Connelly. "For them, the adults in the house who always felt strong and protective to them appear to be so weak and vulnerable. Not only do they miss their loved one, but they also feel the insecurity of those who are still present." Like all things, however, people and families evolve as do the holiday traditions without their loved ones in attendance. So just how do you get through the season? Here are some suggestions to assist in that task.

Grieve Your Way - On Your Terms

Everyone grieves in their own way and on 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 Christmas especially at a family affair where that empty chair now sits or a family tradition is practiced without your loved one," said Attorney Connelly. "It is especially difficult during the first year and perhaps even in subsequent years."

And don’t believe the well-wisher who says there will be “closure”. There is no closure, and why would there be? 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 and traditions worth remembering.

And don't believe the well-wishers who say there will be "closure". There is no closure, and why would there be? 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.

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.

Try to follow a familiar routine

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. This is especially important in the age of the coronavirus.

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 or maybe even next year. Again, do it when you feel ready.

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 and can be extremely uncomfortable. That was a special memory with that person and may need to remain that way. Besides, new activities give you a chance to make new memories while allowing you to cherish the old ones.

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, 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.

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.​

Sometimes, ​Silence Speaks Loudest...

A grieving person will usually spill out all kinds of information about the loss and at times, it may be uncomfortable. "Some of it will make no sense, some will sound like anger and some will be raw emotions flowing from deep inside," stated Attorney Connelly. "Listen without judgment, 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 the acceptance of the loss and the ability to move on with life.

"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." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

Be Aware of 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. We will talk more about this in next Sunday's blog.

Honor the bereaved feelings

Just What Do They Want?

If a person who lost a loved one is coming to the 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 occasion. Springing an event like this on the grieving person can be cruel and painful.

Does the Grieving Person Need Help?

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 helping with the task, your company provides an ear and a heart for the bereaved person to share with.

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, some new traditions, and begin building new memories while acknowledging the importance of the old ones.

For Children

How do we handle children who have lost a parent, grandparent, or another family member or close friend?

Answer questions as honestly as possible

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 -- and you also don't want to be triggered at a time when you are trying to give support to a struggling child.

Keep the Magic of the Holidays

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 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 comfortable sitting with someone who is grieving. Give them permission to feel what they feel and support them in the process, no matter how random their emotions may seem."

"Some days will be better than others," Attorney Connelly continued. "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 emotional responses. Eventually, time will pass, and the sadness will fade, but our relationship with those we love will never really end as long as we keep them alive in our hearts and minds. After all, isn’t that what our loved ones 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.

Senior Emotions
Download PDF • 305KB

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