Death is an emotionally and physically exhausting part of life that can cause an overwhelming toll on a family. With family members coming to town and the constant reminder to be with loved, the holiday season can make surviving the death of a loved one even more unbearable. But those who are suffering in their grief are finding solace in the hands of the Community Grief Support Service (CGSS) organization.
Founded in 1996, CGSS is a nonprofit organization that offers year-long, free-of-charge services to those who are suffering through the grief of loss. Steve Sweatt, the co-director and clinical/ program director at CGSS for six years, says that the organization’s main priority is to help ease survivors’ transition of loss.
“We work strictly with adults,” Sweatt says. “We like to think of ourselves as the counterpart to the Amelia Center, which deals primarily with youths who have experienced loss. And we work with adults who have suffered person-centered losses, which are primarily close family members, friends, coworkers, etc.”
Around the holiday season, CGSS provides survivors with special events that help ease the pain of not having loved ones during the holidays. “We just had our Hope for the Holidays event in November, and it was a huge success. We also provide support groups and personal counseling,” says Sweatt.
Sweatt and CGSS are very aware that the holidays can be an intimidating time for survivors. “Take the typical first year for a survivor after a loss: what people tend to experience is what we call ‘grief bursts’ or ‘grief waves’, which are sudden temporary upsurges of grief. And these are triggered by reminders of loss. And we find people tend to experience these reminders most acutely on holiday occasions.”
Sweatt says the best thing survivors can do to help ease the stress of the holidays is to accept the fact that it will be a rough obstacle to get through. “We always try to emphasize the importance of having a plan. We always anticipate the stress level of the holiday season. And by a plan I mean, think of ways to calm yourself from these stressful situations. For some people, simply leaving the room is helpful; for others, it’s a matter of keeping themselves occupied. It just depends on the person.”
For many people, the approach of the holiday season is more stressful than the actual holiday itself. “What people tend to do is constantly worry about what might happen without their loved one there, and that causes so much anxiety just anticipating these terrible outcomes. What we try to do is encourage people to think of positive activities or releases they can do around the holidays that will not only distract but also make some of their anxiety go away. And we find that type of thinking helps in making their plan for coping through the holidays. But we find once the holiday actually arrives there’s this feeling of, ‘It’s over. It’s done.’”
For some people any sight or sound of the holiday season can be too much to bear, and Sweatt says that is perfectly natural. “A lot of people aren’t able to fully grasp the amount of emotion their grief causes them, and triggers like buying presents for loved ones or decorating the house are just too stressful. And in those cases we encourage them to take a break by maybe going on vacation with friends. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
What many survivors don’t realize is how many resources for healing they have at their hands. “What [we] hope to see is people lean into their resources. And resources are many and varied, often friends, family, work, hobbies, etc. And [what we hope to see] as these people lean into their resources, we hope those surges in grief will level out over time. But there’s no set amount of time for grief. It can level out over a lengthy period of time.”
Sweatt explains that it is not uncommon for people to have mild cases of amnesia after a traumatic death. “It’s not unusual for people to experience shock or disbelief or psychogenic numbing after the onset of loss, depending on many factors: Maybe because the loss was sudden or unexpected, or maybe because of the intensity or the nature of the bond with the deceased. I have many people come in and say that they can’t remember anything during the first year.”
According to Sweatt, it isn’t uncommon for people to feel a numbing sensation during their grief. “The numbing feeling that people feel from a loss is just so intense,” Sweatt says. “This coincides with many cases of amnesia after a loss, too. You might think that the numbing is nature’s protective way of pushing the loss away until the mind can fully grab hold of what has happened. Denial isn’t a bad thing. It simply means we aren’t ready. Denial gets a bad reputation, but it can really help.”
Making adjustments to your holiday routine, and everyday life, can be difficult, but it is a huge step in the grieving process. “Take marital losses, for instance. People who have lost a spouse have a rough time coping because they’re having to do things that were once their spouse’s responsibility, and it’s a scary thing. But the grief work isn’t just about coming to terms with the loss itself with respect to the pain of the loss; it’s also about processing your grief experiences and making adjustments that help.”
Sweatt believes some people don’t realize that recovering from grief takes time and not making that realization can affect the way they heal. “We find that people turn to all sorts of things to heal,” he says. “One of the mythologies about healing is that healing occurs through an orderly, linear…sequential series of stages [e.g. the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model] or that you have to purge yourself of all this grief and emotion at once, and that’s not true. What we find is that people grieve through habituation, which means gradually talking with somebody about that pain, and as I touch that proverbial hot spot, it helps dissipate those emotions. When people process their emotions in a healthy way, such as discussing them with someone, they’re able to gain power over their grief and it helps the pain lessen.”
CGSS helps its patients remember that they are not alone by giving them a tip book on ways to make the holidays less stressful. “We like to include activities with family, exercises survivors can do, it’s all filled with great information that help them feel that they aren’t alone.”
Tips for Getting Through the Holidays
-Decide what you can handle comfortably and let family and friends know. You have your limitations and make sure people know that.
-Make changes as they feel comfortable to you.
-Don’t be afraid to have fun.
-Allow yourself to express your feelings.
-If your deceased loved one made a favorite holiday dish, make it with your family as a group activity to honor them.
-Recognize your loved ones presence in the family.
For more information about the Community Grief Support Service, call (205) 870-8667. CGSS is located at 1119 Oxmoor Road in Homewood. To make a donation, visit their website, communitygriefsupport.org. The organization’s next major event will be Feb. 24 at 7 pm: Exploring Practical Touchstones for Caring for Yourself with Dr. Alan Wolfelt.