Pat Chambers was a wife, mother of five and grandmother of 12. She loved to garden and enjoyed the beauty of nature. But when Chambers was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, little pieces of her slipped away each day, until she died just over a year ago.
Her daughter, Janene Engelhard, knows firsthand that no matter how prepared you are for the death of a loved one, the grief can still be overwhelming — especially during the holidays.
“Grief doesn’t just happen in your head; it happens in your heart,” Engelhard says. “I knew my mom wasn’t going to get better, and I felt like I lost a little more of her each time I saw her. While part of me was prepared for her death, it’s still difficult, especially when holiday traditions trigger grief.”
Engelhard explains that her mother was the pie baker. She recalls the first Thanksgiving without her mom, when it occurred to the family that Mom didn’t do the baking. She also notes how making her mom’s cut-out Christmas cookies is now a bittersweet tradition. While recalling fond memories helps, they also serve as a reminder that her mom is no longer there.
“For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays often elicit emotions of grief and sadness,” said Karen Monts, practice manager of counseling services at Hospice of Michigan. “Though it may be a difficult time for those grieving, it can also be a wonderful time to remember a loved one’s memory. At Hospice of Michigan, we focus on providing the bereaved with the tools they need to once again enjoy this special time of year.”
Monts explains that the holidays may be challenging but there are techniques to help handle grief and find comfort, such as:
Giving yourself grace. Allow yourself to feel whatever way you feel; there is no right or wrong way. Be honest about your feelings and don’t force yourself to do anything you are not up to.
Surround yourself with support. Plan to be around people you enjoy, who are supportive or are a good listener. Negative voices can make the day worse.
Donate your time or treasure. Volunteering at or donating to an organization that was near to your loved one’s heart is a great way to honor them during the holidays. Or pick an organization that’s important to you and could use some assistance.
Remember your loved one. Set a place at the table for your loved one or hang a stocking in which you and others can fill with notes and mementos. Spend time talking about your loved one and sharing stories. If it brings you comfort, look through photos or listen to music that serves as a reminder.
Give a gift. Buy something that you think your loved one would have enjoyed and give it to someone else. You can either share the meaning behind the gift or simply enjoy bringing joy to someone’s life.
Allow yourself to be happy. There is nothing wrong with celebrating or feeling joy.
One of the ways Engelhard coped with grief during the first Christmas without her mother was by creating memorial gifts for her father and siblings.
“My mom loved nature and would press flowers and leaves,” she recalls. “After she died, I found several phone books in her house with her pressed clippings still inside. I used these to create shadow boxes for family members. I also included a photo of my mom, pearls from her favorite necklace, pieces of the measuring tape she had for sewing and swatches from the pastry cloth she had used since we were kids.”
Engelhard explains that creating the memorial gifts was not only a way for her to cope with her grief, but it helped keep her mother’s memory alive—something important to her and her family.
“While everyone copes with grief in their own unique way, over time those grieving will learn to live with the loss and once again find joy—not just during the holiday season, but throughout the year,” Monts adds.
Hospice of Michigan offers a variety of grief support and educational services, including holiday grief programs. Its services are available to all families involved with Hospice of Michigan, as well as the community at large. For more information on any of the services we offer, visit www.hom.org.