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How To Care For People Who Are Grieving During The Holidays

I have several ideas in mind for holiday-oriented posts over the next few weeks, but in pondering which to start with, I decided to go for the least cheery but (I think) most important.

How do we care for people who are not ready to celebrate?

The holidays are hard for a lot of people. Maybe this includes you. It seems we have to do a lot of stuff, spend a lot of money, strive for those Hallmark moments that are never quite perfect.

The holidays are even harder for people who are grieving. People you care for may be mourning for loved ones who have died, grieving over the loss of their independence or family home or rewarding career with brilliant colleagues, or simply missing friends and family who aren’t gathered near this year. The holidays are family-centered, so the loss of loved ones can be felt so much more strongly at this time of year. Plus, as one of my activity director colleagues pointed out, most of our seniors have experienced multiple losses, so there is a good chance that you know someone who is grieving this season.

You may offer the opportunity to buy a poinsettia plant in memory of a loved one.

Here are some ideas for supporting your seniors who are grieving this year:

  • Let them withdraw if necessary. Maybe most of the time we’re trying to engage people in more and more interactions, but during the holidays, those activities can be especially painful. Don’t pressure your one-on-one clients to listen to Christmas music or write Christmas cards. Don’t make people come to holiday events if they would rather not. One colleague of mine even suggested having a “holiday-free zone” in the senior living community with games and movies and activities that are decidedly NOT about Christmas.
  • Be a listening ear. Of course, you won’t want your seniors to withdraw and stay alone. You can be the compassionate, loving, listening ear for your seniors who are struggling during the season. You don’t necessarily have to talk about the losses or the sadness – you could just talk about something other than Christmas.
  • Offer opportunities for creative commemoration. Maybe you encourage a home care client to purchase a poinsettia for their church in memory of their loved one. Maybe you offer an opportunity to decorate an ornament in honor of a loved one who has died. Maybe you help to write down that poem or pen the letter to the loved one that is not there this year.
  • Arrange for communal commemoration, too. I highly recommend having at least one scheduled event that is quiet and subdued – a place to recognize the holiday even if you’re not feeling merry and bright. Validating that not everyone may be in the holiday spirit this year can feel very supportive to a senior who may feel bad about feeling bad. You may want to use this event to incorporate another opportunity for people to remember their loved ones who have gone, by lighting (flameless) candles or naming people who are not present this year. Not sure how to plan an event like this? Your hospice partners, chaplains, or funeral directors may be good resources for you.

In addition to supporting your elders who are grieving this year, please remember to take care of yourself and your fellow eldercare professionals. We all experience loss throughout the year, too – of our own family and friends, perhaps, but also of seniors and co-workers and family caregivers who die or who move on from our lives. It is perfectly normal to miss those folks, too, and we also need time and space to grieve. That’s another reason why communal memorial events are so important – they give seniors and caregivers alike the opportunity to remember those we have lost.

Have you known seniors who needed special care during the holidays? How did you help those who weren’t in the holiday spirit?

7 comments… add one
  • Susan Supplee

    thanks for this. it verifies a lot of what I’m feeling but cannot express in words. though i feel alone in these experiences, i know i am not. such sorrow. so, again, thank you

    • Susan, I am so glad this resonated with you, and I hope you find ways to take care of yourself this season.

  • Rachelle,

    Coping with grieving during the holidays is on my “post list” as well. It is such an important topic, particularly for older folks who may have had a higher volume of recent losses. Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions. I appreciate the reminder that it is okay not to “cheer someone up” but to simply create space to honor their feelings. I also like the idea of a holiday free zone!

    Warmly,
    Ann

    • I think everyone needs the reminder that it is okay not to “cheer someone up” during the holidays – compassionate presence is more important.

  • I am so there and I am not a senior. I don’t know that it is grief for me so much but I don’t really like messing with decorations, and everything that comes with Christmas. I used to when I was younger, just not anymore. It detracts me from life. I appreciate the permission to not be all caught up in the hubbub of it. The only time I really want to get into the “spirit of Christmas” is when I am with my grandkids. Then, I am all about it!
    I do have several friends who are in their 70’s and 80’s who really don’t care about Christmas or any other holidays anymore either. For some of them it is because they feel too tired to “mess with it” or it brings back memories of lost ones. I like the ideas you have here for subduing Christmas.

    • I think our culture (especially those looking for holiday spending!) encourages going all out, bigger and better every year. It’s just not necessary.

  • Grief and the holidays go together more than many care to acknowledge. These tips will assist many in dealing with the emotional mix of the holidays.

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