Suncoast Hospice Bereavement Counselor Dwight Douglass

Once again the holidays are upon us. But for some people, reveling in the joy of the season isn’t so simple because their loved ones are no longer here. In light of this difficult loss, there’s hope for peace.

If you or your family members are struggling with a death and grief, please join one of our free Hope for the Holidays group workshops at our community service centers. You’ll receive support and guidance on how to manage through the holidays and make plans to remember and honor those who’ve died.

“We’re constantly inundated with the holidays. People want a magic pill to go to sleep and wake up when they’re over. The problem is they’d awaken faced with Valentine’s Day, and then St. Patrick’s Day, and then Easter, and so on. We ask people to not run away from their grief. You can’t, it’ll find you,” said Dwight Douglass, LCSW, a Suncoast Hospice bereavement counselor and workshop facilitator.

Hope for the Holidays Workshops

Our workshops provide a welcoming space for families to share their stories, express their feelings and plan how they’ll handle holiday activities.

“We’ve found that many people come to these sessions wanting to find coping strategies to get through a very difficult time as best as they can. The basic tenant of our program is helping folks learn to not dread the holidays, but find ways to honor the holidays and their loved ones. Not thinking about holidays or anniversaries of deaths creates more anxiety, depression and stress than rehearsing what those days or events will be like without them and creating plans to honor them. In the past few years, we’ve seen a trend of more people who want to talk through it and address it early,” Douglass explained.

Through storytelling and informational materials, participants work to plan approaches and activities for the season as well as for other special occasions.

Douglass shared, “Those who’ve lost loved ones tend to focus on whom they don’t have and what they can’t do. They’re unable to see the possibilities. Through others’ stories and helpful tips, participants learn what they can still do to “bring their loved ones to the table.” Our handouts guide family members in discussing what parts of holidays are important to them and connect them to their loved ones. They also may talk about keeping traditions, altering plans and practical items, such as gift giving when not feeling like it; what to do with holiday cards; to decorate or not; what to cook; to be alone or not; and more. Although the “major holidays” are the focus, we address other holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and events.”

Holiday and Special Event Challenges

The traditions, rituals and senses can affect family members and friends during holidays, sporting events and other special times spent together.

“When it’s a loss of a spouse, New Year’s and Christmas tend to be the hardest times. They were romantic times for couples with special gifts or kisses. And Christmas is difficult because it’s considered the happiest time of the year. The senses are so powerful and smells are so strong. These may be triggers that activate grief bursts,” he said.

Douglass added, “People also miss Halloween block parties, Super Bowl parties, Memorial Day grilling or Nascar races. These events are huge and can catch us off guard. It can be hard for families and friends who did lots of preparation for these events. Friends grieve and miss the person and the tradition.”

Person's Hand Marking On Checklist With PenSurvival Skills

Participants are encouraged to envision and plan for the holidays in advance as a way to best manage them.

“At our workshops, we typically see a spouse with a child who are struggling, not in agreement or numb because they don’t know how to handle it. If we can help people express what they want or can’t handle, that helps narrow down what feels safe. For example, if a death happens close to a holiday, it’s hard to go out to the mailbox and see deliveries of holiday cards. That takes energy. If you want, you can send your cards out later in the year. The best thing you can do is to have a plan – control the holiday so it doesn’t control you,” Douglass said.

Some coping tips include:

• Make a checklist and honor what you want to do.

• Rehearse the holiday, as painful as it is. You can decide to not do things this year; pass on the traditions to someone else; do something different like a cruise or a hotel trip; or still carry on with traditions. If you really like something that’s fun, don’t deprive yourself of that.

• Start with something small, like putting out a wreath or a small tree or cooking a small turkey.

• Be part of things in small doses. Drive yourself to an event, in case you feel uncomfortable and need to leave. For example, if you go to hear music, sit on the aisle and don’t stay the whole time if you don’t want to.

• If you’re going to be alone, tell your family and friends that’s what you’re going to do. Have a friend on call to be available if you need to get out of the house.

Family portraitIncluding Children, Honoring Loved Ones

Families can support children in discussing their feelings and making them part of honoring the holidays and loved ones.

“Children get it a lot easier than we do. You can talk about the loss with them by asking, “What do you think happens when people die?” or having them draw it. You also may wish to seek our counseling if you need it. Sometimes you may not know how to answer your children’s questions, but your children can guide you through it. And sometimes they may tell you they’ve had a “visitation” from their loved ones. Ask them how they’d like to spend time at the holidays and remember their loved ones. Keeping traditions alive can keep the memories alive,” Douglass explained.

Some activities may include:

• Have them hang a stocking, make a card or draw a picture in honor of your loved one. Everybody in the family can participate and include these activities in traditions. It’s good to keep those things going.

• Allow them to express their feelings. With teens, writing, journaling and sketching are channels in which their emotions will come out.

• Encourage them to talk about their recollections of your loved ones and what they miss from the holiday events.

• Make a donation or devote your time to a favorite cause of your loved one.

• Make a favorite dish of your loved one.

Join Us

Looking for comfort from the loss of a loved one this holiday season? Come to our Hope for the Holidays grief workshops. They are free of charge, no registration required and presented in English or Spanish. Visit our calendar for dates.