Grief for the holidays

It’s hard to look at the calendar and not be reminded that Christmas Eve will mark exactly four months since my dad’s funeral. There’s going to be an enormous gap in the family holiday celebration this year, and in fact every year from now on.

But for what it’s worth, we are far from alone in having grief as an uninvited guest for the holidays.

Although the cultural expectation is that this is supposed to be a joyful time of the year, the reality is otherwise for anyone dealing with death, illness, financial difficulties, divorce, homelessness, or other forms of loss.

We shouldn’t need to be reminded of this, but somehow we often do anyway. And it seems many of us need outside advice on how to cope – or, for those who aren’t anticipating that their own holidays might be difficult, advice on how to be sensitive toward family and friends who are.

My email inbox has been filling up since October with suggestions on everything from getting through the holidays while undergoing cancer treatment to coping after a natural disaster. A half-hour on the Internet  turned up even more advice and insight, much of it from experts on grief.

If there’s one message to be gleaned from all this information, it would perhaps be this: Expect your emotions to be near the surface and expect that it will be hard at times, but concentrate on how you can make the holidays both manageable and meaningful in spite of what you’re dealing with.

Caroline Flohr, who lives in suburban Seattle and recently published “Heaven’s Child,” a memoir about the sudden death of her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, has this to say: “Through the web of pain, I have been amazed by the power of family, love and faith in  healing.”

Have faith in your own inner strength and be appreciative of what you have, she writes.

From a grief counselor: Try to avoid comparing your situation with that of other people who are together and enjoying the holidays; no family gathering is perfect or stress-free.

Alan Wolfelt, the founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., and a noted author and counselor, suggests that rather than allowing well-meaning friends and family to prescribe how they think you should spend the holiday, focus instead on what would be meaningful to you.

What about the thousands of people for whom health challenges will be an unavoidable part of the holidays? Deborah Cornwall, a leadership volunteer for the American Cancer Society and author of a new book, “Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out,” sums it up this way: “Keep it festive. Keep it simple. Keep it social. Keep it positive.”

Having cancer or being a caregiver for someone with cancer (or any other major or chronic disease, for that matter) is often overwhelming, so look for normalcy, she advises. This might mean focusing on a few traditional activities, such as baking and decorating cookies, that are most important to you and skipping the rest. Make togetherness the priority – and find time to laugh, Cornwall suggests.

Those who haven’t yet experienced grief or illness or hardship during the holidays may want to be helpful but don’t know what to say or do.

Again, the experts come to the rescue with some important tips: Don’t judge. Don’t give advice that hasn’t been asked for. Be present and listen. Rather than waiting to be asked or making vague offers of help, take the initiative and offer to help in ways that are specific and practical, such as bringing over dinner or shoveling snow off the sidewalk.

In the days and weeks after Dad died, it was often the little things that mattered most – the cards, the phone calls, the neighbors who brought food, the people who took the time to share their memories of him.

Studies on coping with grief and adversity mostly point to the same conclusion: Support from other people matters, and an essential part of the recovery process is the construction of meaning out of loss. Even though the holidays are often a serious test of people’s emotional fortitude, at the same time it can be an opportunity for the sick, the struggling and the bereaved to become more resilient.

The agony of defeat

The Winter Olympic games are over. The athletes have all gone home. Some have medals (way to go!) but most do not. For every athlete who won gold, there was another who finished dead last.

The thrill of victory is wonderful for those who experience it, but what about the agony of defeat? How do you handle the emotional blow of being a loser without, well, being a loser about it?

It’s one of life’s hard lessons, usually encountered early in childhood, that you can’t always be the winner. Most youth athletes perform on a much smaller stage than the Olympics, but that doesn’t make defeat any easier to swallow, explains Dr. Claudia Reardon of the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s her perspective for parents and other adults who work with young athletes (it’s advice that could equally apply to kids in other competitive activities such as spelling bees and math contests):

"Youth sports can be a really physically and emotionally healthy activity, but the reality is that not every bounce, play or game is going to go your child’s way," says Dr. Reardon. "The way you choose to handle can really help them grow, both as individuals and as athletes."

Step one is to acknowledge your child’s feelings. While they’re likely to take things to a catastrophic extreme when they come up short or their last-second shot bounces off the rim (think phrases like "I’m the worst player EVER" and "My life is ruined!"), you can help them take a more measured approach.

"Saying something as simple as, ‘I understand you’re feeling upset that you didn’t win the race’ can open up a discussion and let them know you’re there to listen," says Dr. Reardon. "And it’s OK if the conversation stops there; some children need to work through the disappointment on their own."

Plenty of adults seem to struggle with this themselves. Bad sportsmanship is getting a lot of attention these days. You have to wonder what it says about someone’s emotional disposition when his response to winning a silver medal in men’s Winter Olympics figure skating is to snark about the gold-medal winner’s failure to include a quadruple jump in his routine. Or what it says about the adults who think it’s acceptable to swear at coaches and referees and, in some extreme cases, get physically assaultive. Self-control, anyone?

I’m not sure it helps when certain athletes are uber-hyped by the media. It puts them under heavy pressure to succeed, with the implication that anything less than a gold medal constitutes failure. Not only do their fans expect them to win but there might be, as in the case of South Korean figure skater Kim Yu Na, millions of dollars’ worth of endorsements at stake. And what about their teammates, who are often equally hard-working but don’t get the same amount of attention?

In spite of the pressure-cooker of the world’s most elite sports event, though, there were many moments of Olympic grace, among the winners as well as the losers. These athletes displayed what I like to think of as emotional resilience, the ability to hold up under stress and not resort to negative, potentially destructive thought patterns and behaviors. It’s what makes a skater go out on the ice, land a great performance and win a bronze medal less than a week after unexpectedly losing her mother. It’s what makes a skier come back and compete the day after painfully wiping out in the slalom.

There’s been considerable study in recent years of emotional resilience. It has been linked to better health outcomes, increased resistance to stress and an increased capacity to recover from stress. Researchers are looking at how resilience can be fostered, especially in high-stress situations such as combat, trauma, loss or catastrophic illness.

Why are some people more resilient than others? Is it because of nature or because of nurture? We haven’t quite unlocked all the secrets of resilience but most of us know this quality when we see it.

In the end, these are the best lessons I’d like to take home from the Winter Olympics – not who won or lost but how well and how resiliently they played the game.

Photo: Associated Press