Pete Demma remembers one of the greatest gifts he and his daughter, Rubie, received the Christmas of 2015, the year his wife died of a brain aneurysm.
His wife, Teresa, cherished the holidays, hosting parties and decorating their home in Lincoln, Neb. Over their 13-year marriage, she collected enough decorations to fill 15 large plastic boxes. His job was to bring them down from the attic. She did the rest, beautifully. When she died, both he and Rubie, who was 10 at the time, were overwhelmed.
“I was real close to getting rid of most of them,” says Mr. Demma. But then some of Teresa’s closest friends came over and together they put all 15 boxes of decorations up.
Looking back, he says, it was probably one of the most helpful things they could have done.
The holiday season, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, is among the most difficult times of year for survivors of loss. The rituals that made them special—visiting grandparents, hanging stockings, lighting candles, baking cookies, singing carols, throwing parties—are now painful because a central figure who shared those special moments is now gone.
“It really magnifies the absence of that person in our lives,” says Terese Vorsheck, a clinical psychologist and director of Pittsburgh’s Highmark Caring Place, which founded Children’s Grief Awareness Day, a day set aside every November to recognize that holidays are hard for children whose parent, sibling or grandparent has died.
That’s true whether the loss was months ago, or years ago. Adults who lost a parent in childhood say it takes six years or more to move forward, according to a new survey on bereavement from the New York Life Foundation, which supports programs, including bereavement camps, for grieving children. Yet support typically tapered off within three months for a majority of those surveyed, and was especially missed around the holidays.
What many of those grieving find most helpful is hearing stories about their loved ones. It doesn’t have to be momentous or poignant. It can be funny: her comical Irish jigs, his snoring. Teresa Demma was legend for her chip dips.
Families don’t want loved ones forgotten. For children, it can be even more important, giving them permission to talk about what is on their minds and helping them feel less lonely.
“Kids worry they will forget what mom smelled like or the sounds of their dad’s laugh,” says David Schonfeld, a Los Angeles pediatrician and leading childhood grief expert and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “If you learn more about someone close who died, your relationship grows.”
Donna Blohn knew that Bryson, the sixth of her seven children, was empathetic but didn’t know how much her son had touched other people’s lives. One boy wrote her a letter after Bryson, 18, died in May after taking a pill offered to him by a friend at a party. “He helped me through a lot,” the boy wrote. “I’ll always appreciate his friendship.” Another letter, from the mother of a fellow student, recalled how Bryson had come over to help put together a dining room table. “He made me laugh so hard,” she wrote.
The family is trying to figure out how to get through Christmas, Ms. Blohn says. In years past, they decorated the tree with bulbs given every year to each child. This year, they bought all new ornaments. They are adding more outdoor lights at the request of her youngest son, Jorge. “He wants Bryson to see them from heaven,” says Ms. Blohn, who lives in Lincoln. Bryson’s name will be included when the kids draw names for gifts. Whoever gets his name will buy a gift for Toys for Tots or another charity.
Ms. Blohn says she still plans to host Christmas dinner, with the same meal and mayonnaise Jell-O salad that the kids joked about. She is asking relatives and friends to share stories and tears. “Don’t make Bryson the elephant in the room,” she says. “I don’t want him to be the thing you shouldn’t talk about.”
Such encouragement is useful. More than 60% of Americans admit they sometimes avoid talking to someone about their loss because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, according to the New York Life Foundation survey.
Julie Kaplow, Ph.D. and director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, remembers one mother of three asking family members to come to Christmas dinner and bring a photo or keepsake relating to her husband, who had died a year earlier. One uncle brought tickets to a football game they attended together. One of her children had a book they used to read together, and another a shirt that smelled like her dad.
“For the kids, especially, knowing that this was something that their father had actually touched or owned was especially powerful and made them feel more connected to him,” says Dr. Kaplow.
WAYS TO CARE FOR GRIEVING FRIENDS AND FAMILY AT THE HOLIDAYS
- Be personal. Reach out in person, or on the phone, rather than online. While social media has opened more channels to express sorrow and offer condolences, it’s not the same as personal connection.
- Be specific. Instead of saying “Let me know if you need anything,” offer to put up lights, address cards, carry a tree into the house, bake cookies or take children shopping.
- Be inclusive. Invite those who are grieving to a holiday outing or gathering. (You might want to avoid using the word “party.”) If they aren’t feeling up to it, they can always say no, but they might want to be with others.
- Be flexible. Understand that plans might change at the last minute if someone becomes overwhelmed by the unexpected triggers of grief and can’t make a dinner or outing.
- Be mindful. Remember to remember not just on the holidays. On important dates like birthdays and anniversaries send a note, saying that you miss the person who died. Mention their name. Families don’t want loved ones forgotten.
For many who have lost family members, deciding whether to keep holiday traditions or start new ones is complicated and deeply personal. One person may feel comforted by an empty place setting and another pained. Changing anything can make some people feel guilty.
Brook Griese, a Denver-based licensed psychologist and chief executive of Judi’s House, which provides services to grieving children and families, has a friend whose daughter died several years ago and continues to feel acute loss around the holidays. The mother wrote her daughter a letter every Christmas Eve and put it in her stocking. One year, she forgot and needed encouragement from her friends that it was OK to let that go. Dr. Griese says her friend has now reached the point where she worries less about what others think and does what feels good for her and her family—even if it means continuing to make her daughter’s favorite holiday dish even if no one else likes it.
“She said that no matter how long it’s been, you still feel like someone is missing,” says Dr. Griese. Her husband, Brian Griese, a former Denver Broncos quarterback, lost his mother, Judi, when he was 12. The couple founded Judi’s House to help children and families experiencing loss. “I know Brian still misses his mom after 30 years.”
Every holiday in 2014 was hard for Dana Germain, whose husband Rich died of a heart attack in January of that year. Having a big family and being together, her kids playing with their cousins, helped.
The hardest holiday was Mother’s Day because her husband was the one who made sure their four children made cards and bought flowers. In his absence, her friends stepped in to make that happen. They also left balloons and streamers outside the family’s house in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. Her children called them their elves.
“The most meaningful things weren’t words,” she says. “They were actions.” And they didn’t just come around the holidays, but throughout the year. Friends left bagels and coffee outside their front door every Sunday morning for six months. One left notes in her mailbox. Another came over to watch a movie with her. “It was just a reminder that I wasn’t alone,” she says.
That support, along with counseling at Dr. Kaplow’s center, helped them through that first year. On Father’s Day 2015, she and her children began a 14-month trip around the world, visiting 28 countries—a trip Ms. Germain and her adventurous husband dreamed about.
By Clare Ansberry, Wall Street Journal
Photo: Jon Krause