By Camisha L. Jones
Grieving is never easy during the holidays. With the recent shootings of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, stomach Connecticut, there is a collective grief our country is experiencing. In the face of the deaths, some in that New England town have taken down their holiday decorations out of respect for those who are mourning. Often, this season’s colorful lights, cheerful music and happy greetings just feel out of place for people experiencing grief.
Allyson Drake, founder of Full Circle Grief Center (fullcirclegc.org), describes the particular difficulty of grief during the holidays, stating: “If you have an empty chair at the table or someone missing at a holiday tradition, the pain can be overwhelming. Many times, families are at a loss about what to do with holiday traditions – because they are grieving so deeply for the person they love.” Specializing in using art as a means to process grief, Full Circle’s mission is to provide comprehensive, professional grief support to children, families, and communities. The center’s programs are all free and include 8-week peer grief counseling groups, school-based grief groups for youth, and monthly opportunities for grieving people to create keepsakes in memory of their loved ones.
Grief manifests itself in many ways. It can include feelings of shock or numbness, anxiety, anger, loneliness or hopelessness. It can cause difficulty concentrating, remembering information and feeling motivated to do things you once loved. Some people experience a loss of appetite, overeating, headaches, fatigue, excessive sleeping, and difficulty sleeping. It is normal for grief to show up as anger within one’s faith beliefs, inspiring questions like “Why did God let him/her die?” and “Why is God punishing me?”
Allowing grieving people space to express what they are going through helps to ease the effects of their grief. “A grieving person’s pain is lessened when you allow them to talk, ask questions, and just share memories about their loved one…In my opinion, making remembrance an important part of the holidays is essential in healing,” says Drake. She offers these ideas for holiday remembrance activities: hang a homemade ornament on the tree with the loved one’s name on it; make the loved one’s favorite dish or meal; light a candle in your loved one’s memory; spend time sharing stories or memories about the deceased during the holiday meal or before exchanging presents; and give children and adults the opportunity to share the “gifts” that the loved one shared with them or passed on to them – like their sense of humor, love of football, or eye color. Full Circle offers more tips on handling grief and supporting people who are grieving in its Bereavement Resource Manual which is accessible on the organization’s website.
Many in the Richmond area are already incorporating remembrance into their holidays. Anthony Amos, for instance, lost his father, Tony Kobina Amos, in December 2006 and says he will likely write a poem on the day his father died to express his feelings. “I still hear his laugh in my head and I miss hearing it and seeing his cheeks bulge with his smile,” says Amos of his father. According to Ghanaian tradition, a celebration of Tony Amos’ life was held in Africa a year after his death. Because Anthony Amos was unable to attend, he created a DVD in memory of his father using video footage and photographs to send to his family. “My family loved it and I think it helped them grieve his passing. It helped me put things in perspective,” says Amos. He now offers memorial DVDs to others who have lost loved ones through his company, Skies the Limit Entertainment. Additionally, Skies the Limit is creating a series of greeting cards and a calendar to acknowledge the many seasons of grief. “My hope,” says Amos about the projects, “…is to help people through a difficult time, let them know that they are not alone, and to (help them) remember the great things about the people they have lost.”
GiTonya Parker’s paternal grandmother, Rosa Louise Thompson, passed away in October 2012. Parker says, “What I enjoyed most was her smile during the holidays. I really don’t think we ever exchanged gifts. I just enjoyed being in her presence.” This past November, in honor of her grandmother’s birthday, she recalls a meaningful note written by her father. “My Dad and Grandmother share the same birthday. When visiting his home during his birthday, I noticed that he purchased a card for my Grandmother and it was on the coffee table. He wrote a brief note to her in the card. I thought that was beautiful.” Parker is considering journaling as a way to remember her grandmother this holiday season.
Holly Rodriguez will be spending this holiday season without her parents, Carlesta and George Melvin, who died February 2012 and March 2010 respectively. “My mother was all about creating a loving environment for us…(B)ecause Christmas was her favorite time of the year, she would really decorate the house so beautifully – she was quite serious about it – and…she would sing along to the Christmas music. My father… really enjoyed the moments when all of us were together opening gifts…(and sitting) around the dinner table for the feast that my stepmom would prepare. He was a jazz musician, and on Christmas night, he would invite jazz musicians from Charlottesville to his teenie tiny basement to get together and jam…,” she recalls. Rodriguez has planned a unique remembrance activity for the month. “(Starting) on 12/12, I’m going to do…12 days of Christmas traditions with my family – my husband, kids and younger brother. We’re going to celebrate the things my parents loved about Christmas. So, I’ve picked six things that my mom loved, and six that my dad loved, and we’ll be doing these things leading up to Christmas… And, along the way, I’ll be incorporating some new traditions of our own.”
A quote in the Full Circle office says, “Healing from grief is the process of remembering with less pain and more joy.” Whether you write a poem, journal, light a candle or plan 12 special days of activity, finding meaningful ways to keep the memory of loved ones alive this holiday season can help lessen grief’s pain and perhaps make these last winter days of 2012 a bit more joyful.