I spent Sunday at a fund-raiser for the family of a 2012 North-ampton Area High School grad who died recently from brain cancer.
The benefit raised money to help the family of Alec Ferullo, a 2012 Northampton Area High School graduate who died Oct. 8. His parents had to take unpaid leaves of absence from their jobs in order to care for him during his last few months.
As I watched people buy raffle tickets, baked goods and souvenirs, I couldn't help but think how soon Thanksgiving will be here – and then Christmas and New Year's.
The holiday season is already upon us. Most people associate the holidays with giving thanks, being cheerful and helping others. All of those are worthwhile endeavors but they also create an awkward mix for those who have recently lost loved ones.
The holidays will be bittersweet for the Ferullo family. Someone will be conspicuously missing from the Thanksgiving dinner table and from other celebrations this holiday season.
"For those still mourning the loss of a spouse, child, parent or other loved one, that first holiday season can be an emotionally trying time. Between the memories that are stirred up by the festivities and the expectations to be jolly and full of holiday spirit, the season can mean slipping back into grief and depression for those still coping with loss," says "The First Holiday Without Them – Coping With Loss," an article by Christine Hutchison of the ABC News Medical Unit.
Dina Galusha, who lost her son, Dakota, 12, in a freak accident Jan. 26. 2009, told me one of the most difficult times for Dakota's sister, Ryan, was the first family meal together after the accident.
Ryan didn't want someone else sitting in her brother's seat.
This situation illustrates how grief is different for everyone. Some people might think it's better to stick to routine. Others will tell you to try something different.
However, there's no right or wrong way to cope. As supporters, we need to give those who are grieving the flexibility to decide if they will be more comforted by change or routine.
"One of the hardest parts of getting through the holidays for those in grief is the belief they have to be cheerful just because it's the holidays," says the ABC News article.
Even if those in mourning do attend the usual holiday parties, supporters need to allow them to be sad.
My father was killed by a drunk driver Nov. 9, 1979. It's been such a long time I barely remember the holidays before his death. What I do remember, however, is all the stupid things people would say in an attempt to make me feel better.
"You may be learning what many others have learned: some people will try to hurry you through your grief," says an article on holiday grief at belovedhearts.com. "Some may insist on continually cheering you up. Others may give you advice about what you should and shouldn't do or how you should and shouldn't feel."
The website Grief Watch covers some of the things people say that they think are helpful – but really aren't – in hurrying grief out of your life. For example:
"God never gives you more than you can handle."
This was about halfway down the Grief Watch list but it is at the top of my own list of things not to say.
What is that supposed to mean, anyway? The fact that some people die by suicide proves some people are given more than they can handle.
"Be thankful" or "Be positive."
Psychologists will tell you you must allow yourself to feel grief before you can let it go. Allow those dealing with grief to handle it in their own way and in their own time. They may need to feel sad before they can feel joy – or thanks – again.
"It is over with" or "it is time to move on."
Only the person grieving can say when it is over or time to move on. Grief is not a linear process. It involves detours, curves and emotions that may chance moment to moment.
If someone you care about seems down, just give the person a little time. He or she may not seem so down in a day or even in an hour.
"There's always someone else who has it worse than you."
This is another one at the top of my list. I suppose it is true. It is just not the right thing to say. To those experiencing loss, the sufferings of people they have never met are abstract and meaningless. Let the person heal a little first. After some time, it might make the grieving person feel better to help others. But in the meantime, you can't force it. Let the person be the recipient of help instead of expecting him or her to be the giver.
Other comments on the Grief Watch list are similar in meaning to the above. They include "snap out of it," "be strong," "it was God's will" and "it's just nature's way of dealing with a problem."
One comment not on the list is "I know what you're going through."
People like to say this to express empathy. The problem is every situation is different. You really can't know what someone else is going through without experiencing the same thing.
That brings me to what you can say. It's OK to admit you don't know what to say if you don't, says Grief Watch. Follow it up by offering to listen, asking what you can do to help or if the person wants to talk about how he or she is really feeling.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your loss," is another good thing to say as is, "I can't imagine what you are going through." This way you give the person the chance to talk if he or she wishes.
In the rush to get into the holiday spirit, just remember to go easy on those whose loss may keep them from feeling like celebrating all the time.
Johanna S. Billings