Processing grief can be a long, confusing process on a normal day.
But when a holiday comes around, one that is normally full of joy, family tradition and laughter, grief can be even more painful and draining.
While one may feel as though they’re supposed to be happy during a holiday like Passover, feeling differently is a normal part of the grieving process, according to Mary Fisher Bornstein, program staff manager at The Gathering Place in Beachwood and Westlake; Julia Ellifritt, education director at Cornerstone of Hope, which has locations in Cleveland, Columbus and Lima; and Karen Hatfield, director of grief services at Hospice of the Western Reserve, which serves Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Ottawa, Portage, Sandusky, Seneca, Stark and Summit counties.
“No two people grieve the same way, and there is no one right way to grieve,” Hatfield told the Akron Jewish News. “Particularly around the holidays, some people find great comfort in holiday traditions and rituals, and others may feel like they’re difficult to face. Some people may even feel both things at the same time. For families in particular, it’s important to give each other a lot of grace, knowing everyone grieves differently.”
Ellifritt told the AJN it is about “surviving the holidays and just getting through it” for most, especially if they experienced the loss recently.
“I think that it can be meaningful though,” she said. “I encourage people to keep that person alive by including their memory in their holiday traditions. Whatever that was, whether it was through the seder meal or whatever else, think ‘how would grandpa have participated?’ Use that person’s name. It’s OK to say their name – everyone is thinking about it. It’s about processing this as a group.”
Bornstein, who facilitates grief groups for The Gathering Place’s east side location, told the AJN it’s important to be realistic – understanding one could experience emotional limitations and contradictions during the holidays.
“Be realistic about your grief and the joy of the holiday, even though they don’t seem to match,” she said. “Know that this year is different, and that is hard in itself, but we can still experience joy. Be kind to yourself and show self-compassion. We don’t always do that. Seek support. Whether that is family or friends, or someone outside that circle, you need to allow yourself to experience those feelings.”
Each organization offers support groups for those processing a loss, no matter where they are in their grief journey. The Gathering Place only offers support services for those who have experienced a cancer-related loss, while Cornerstone of Hope focuses its services on comprehensively helping children, teens and adults who have experienced the death of a loved one. The Hospice of the Western Reserve also offers support groups for all ages, as well as specific options for the family of former patients.
Recognizing that seeking out support outside of the family unit may not be something everyone is comfortable with, Hatfield said processing grief as a family unit has merit – especially since everyone could be grieving the loss of the same person.
“Grieving as a group is different from grieving on your own,” Hatfield said. “Some people prefer to do their processing on their own. One is not better than the other, but when you’re faced with something that is going to have everyone there as a group, deeply listening to each other does make a difference. If we can listen to each other and respect that someone’s experience can be very different from someone else’s, we can validate and accept each other – wherever we are in our grief.”
For those that may not be ready to approach their grief in a group, being kind to oneself is a great first step, Ellifritt said.
“Grief is a 24/7 job for months to even years,” she said. “You’re trying to get through life, and it’s hard. Sometimes you have to pretend you’re OK. No one can be sad all the time. But, you also have to take that mask off at some point. We talk about times when you can feel safe to do that. Find 15 to 20 minutes daily to take time for yourself. If you can schedule that grief time in, it could help you get through the rest of the day without having spontaneous moments of intense grief.”
But simply knowing you’re allowed to be happy even if it feels wrong to do so, that makes every day a little easier – especially when the loss feels so obvious, Bornstein said.
“Laughter and enjoyment around the holidays are still important,” she said. “People who are grieving wonder if they can ever be happy again. But being happy is a sign of life. They can be sad for their loss, but they can also allow themselves to feel happy when surrounded by those they love most.”