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Holiday-season seminar gives aid to those who have lost loved ones

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–The holidays are here, and along with them come parties, gifts, excitement and time focused on family.
But for many, the holiday season will bring a new journey of sadness, grief and loneliness. Losing a loved one is hard, but the holidays seem to magnify the situation, especially the first holiday season after the death occurs.
“It’s going to be difficult and you can’t re-create what you used to have,” said Trudy Tharpe, executive director of Community Grief Support Services in the Homewood area of Birmingham, Ala. “You can maintain some things, however,” Tharpe noted. “Try to keep whatever the grieving person wants to maintain. Don’t throw it all out.”
Holidays represent special memories, traditions and customs unique to each family. But when a member of the family is missing, those family moments change forever. Those changes seem harder to accept in the midst of the holidays, counselors say.
But there is hope, Tharpe said. In an annual “Holiday Help” seminar, Tharpe brings in speakers and provides handouts to better equip grieving people to handle the holidays.
One thing people can do is be realistic, she noted. It is important for people to prepare themselves for the hurt. Grieving people should be patient with themselves and forgive themselves for surviving the death of a loved one. Tharpe pointed out that forgetfulness and lack of focus come with grief. People used to a demanding schedule may find themselves having a hard time making simple decisions, Tharpe said. Planning ahead and making lists help to combat missing something important. It also is important to exercise regularly, eat right and get plenty of rest, she said.
Leslie L. Wells, a speaker at this year’s Holiday Help conference in Birmingham on Nov. 14, said Tharpe encouraged her to take time for herself after her husband died earlier this year.
A member of one of Tharpe’s “Young Widowed” support groups, Wells said some friends advised her to stay busy, but Tharpe “gave me permission to go more slowly” -­ to take time to grieve, to regroup and to heal.
The time taken to slow down was desperately needed in Wells’ case. After six months of exhausting tests, treatment and hospitalizations due to her husband’s cancer, Wells did not know what her role was. “My energy had been totally focused on trying to help Dave, but suddenly I had no focus,” she said.
“Well-meaning friends and family had many suggestions regarding the timing of returning to work, disposition of Dave’s clothes, selling the house and taking trips, but I needed some quality professional advice in these areas,” Wells said. “I am thankful that I set up my first visit with Dr. Tharpe early in my course.”
Tharpe, who leads support groups in Jefferson and Shelby counties, encourages grieving people to take care of themselves by communicating with family and friends. They must tell others what they need. Family and friends need to be available to meet those needs, she added. “They don’t need pity. They need understanding, friendship and support.”
Tharpe suggested doing thoughtful things for the grieving person but not to make a major production of it.
Each day in the life of a grieving person is uncertain, Tharpe said. “Some days will be up, and some days will be down. When they are down, just let them be sad. It is sad, and you can’t cheer them up.”
But grieving people need to know they are not alone, she explained. They need guidance from those who know the journey and support from those who understand. “With those things in place, you’ll make it.”
Wells agreed. “I was very fortunate that my work partners were extremely supportive of my absences during Dave’s illness, and they continued this support as I felt my way after Dave’s death,” she said.
“My stumbling block would have been not allowing myself to accept their help,” Wells noted. “Accepting help and asking for needed help during those early days was a theme I heard repeatedly during my contact with the grief support program.”
Wells said hiring someone to help in the yard freed her for more personal tasks and relieved an area of stress. “I began to make time for gathering important memories into photo albums and reminiscing with friends.”
Sessions with Tharpe “pointed me in a healthy direction in starting my grieving process,” Wells said. And weekly support group meetings became “a safe place to share feelings and concerns.”
Although tough at first, hearing the stories and seeing the tears became a bonding experience for the support group, Wells said. “I found that valuable perspective could be gained from others who were at different points on the grief path,” she said. “It was comforting hearing that others were struggling with many of the same issues I was ­- and that these were normal and expected obstacles like getting used to being alone, dealing with a loved one’s clothes, extreme fatigue and bursts of tears.”
In any event, the holidays will be hard to face, Tharpe noted. Other ways to cope include allowing tears to flow when they come; hanging a stocking at home or placing a wreath at the grave of the loved one; buying a gift in honor of the loved one; lighting a special candle for the loved one during the holiday season; retrieving mementos; writing down gifts received from the loved one; and celebrating the good memories, instead of thinking of what is lost.
Noting that some people try to run away from the holidays by doing something nontraditional such as taking a cruise or an overseas trip, Tharpe said, “Extreme measures to run away from what has happened are counterproductive.”
She advises people to face the holidays but to only make plans they feel they can handle. Sharing the holidays with others is one way to cope, Tharpe said.
Gail Bynon, a member of Westwood Baptist Church in Forestdale, Ala., said surrounding herself with family and friends has made the journey bearable. Bynon, who lost her husband of 34 years, Kenneth (“Snook”), to sleep apnea in May 1997, said the first holiday season without her husband was hard. “It was sad, but as long as you’ve got people around you, you can get through it,” she recounted. “My support comes from my family, my friends and my church.”
Tharpe said having the support of family, friends and a church family is the optimal condition. “[Grieving people] need a network of people who show they care,” she said.
“After the first shock of the event and everybody has gone back to their routine, the person comes out of the shock and realizes the enormity of the change.” With the change magnified during the holidays, Tharpe noted there are those who are more depressed at this time, but it is best not to be on any heavy medication but to seek counseling instead, and “with help, you will weather the storm.”

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  • Jennifer Davis Rash