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VOL. 126 | NO. 243 | Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Center Helps Grievers Cope With Holidays

By Aisling Maki

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An ornament given as a gift from a dear friend. A Christmas photo taken with a spouse. A fireplace stocking hand-knitted by mom.

The holiday season is a treasure trove of time and memory, which can sometimes seem too much to bear for someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one.

“The holidays force you to feel; they force you to remember, based on them being so grounded in tradition,” said Angela Hamblen, director of the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief, which provides free bereavement counseling services to adults, teens and children from across the Mid-South.

The comprehensive grief-counseling center, at 1520 W. Poplar Ave. in Collierville, is funded primarily by the Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation, as well as with donations from individuals and community organizations.

Although the center is affiliated with Baptist Trinity Hospice, it’s open to everyone.

“The services are free, and people come from all over because if they were going somewhere else for counseling, they’d be paying a co-payment or filing insurance,” Hamblen said.

The center opened in 1999 and has grown based on community demand. Five staff grief counselors provide workshops, camp programs and individual counseling sessions for Mid-Southerners to honestly explore and express their feelings surrounding the death of a loved one.

“The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is sort of telling you that you’re supposed to feel that way, and when you’re grieving, that’s not necessarily where you are.”

–Angela Hamblen
Director, Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief

For someone dealing with the recent death of a loved one, the wave of emotions prompted by the season can be overwhelming.

“The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is sort of telling you that you’re supposed to feel that way, and when you’re grieving, that’s not necessarily where you are,” Hamblen said. “The holidays are so full of traditions, and when someone you love had died and is no longer there, it’s almost like your grief smacks you in your face.”

Hamblen said the first step to coping with the holidays is to acknowledge that the grief will inevitably be more intense this time of year.

“It helps us with our own expectations,” Hamblen said. “If we have these expectations of being fine, well, that may get you through a normal Wednesday, but it’s not going to get you through a holiday.”

The next step is to determine what you want and have the energy to do, as opposed to what others expect of you. Hamblen said it’s essential to accept limitations and be realistic about what you can accomplish.

Hamblen advised scaling back celebrations to reflect what grievers can handle emotionally. They shouldn’t feel obligated to host or attend holiday parties. And families may decide to forego a large, festive feast in favor of a small, manageable meal.

Hamblen also recommends finding ways to incorporate a deceased love one’s memory into the holiday celebration.

“If you do something that includes that person who has died in the gathering, it actually makes it easier on everybody,” she said. “There’s all this energy going into avoiding and ignoring, whereas if we just acknowledged it, everybody could take that breath.”

Hamblen suggested hanging a stocking in the loved one’s memory, or writing down stories about that person, placing them in a basket, and taking turns reading them. She also suggested inviting each guest to bring an ornament that reminds them of the deceased.

“A lot of families that have had a child die have done that, and invited that child’s friends to bring an ornament that reminds them of that person,” she said. “It touches your heart and it makes them sad, but the stories and the memories that come from that are what people say gets them through the holidays.”

Hamblen said children grieve differently than adults, and it shouldn’t be assumed that children are not struggling with their grief just because they’re making Christmas lists or otherwise participating in the holidays. It’s crucial to keep the lines of communications open and ask them how they’d like to remember their loved one during the season.

Even if the loss of a loved one wasn’t recent, the feelings associated with that loss will often continue to resurface during the holidays, especially during periods of transition, such as marriage or the birth of a child.

“A child who is seven and has a mom or dad die will continue to grieve throughout their life, and the holidays make that so much more intense,” she said. “There’s no time frame because the holidays are tradition-based.”

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