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Coping with loss during the holidays

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For many families, December is a heartwarming month of gathering together to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa, and ringing in the New Year. However, for families grieving over the loss of a loved one, anticipating the holidays can often be stressful and worrisome.

“Grief is something that the whole family has to wrap their heads around and try to figure out how to go on after a parent or child has died,” says Susan Thomas, the bereavement coordinator at The Center for HOPE (Healing, Opportunity, Perseverance and Enlightenment) at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park. “Everything changes in the family, so all of the family members have to negotiate this change. It’s very complicated.”

During her 24 years as a grief counselor, Thomas has observed the different ways the bereaved react to holidays.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from the families is that sometimes anticipating the event can even be worse than the actual day, but they can be very proactive about the holiday. It’s really important to have some sort of a plan about how they’re going to deal with Hannukah, with Christmas, with the New Year, [rather than] try to figure out what their plan is on that day.”

And Thomas thinks families should carefully choose or omit those activities they may have done with the lost family member.

“The family should decide how much of the holiday they can and want to handle,” she says. “They may want to keep and honor the same old traditions, or they may want to create some new traditions and do something a little bit different. As long as the family is in agreement with that, not to feel like they’re pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”

There are different ways families can choose to remember and celebrate the lives of their lost loved ones during the holiday season. Thomas suggests that the family select a favorite color or scent of the departed and light a candle with that scent or color at specific times during the holiday. Or, some people choose to donate the money that would have been spent on a present for the deceased.

“I know one person who buys a couple of winter coats every year in honor of her loved one and donates them to a homeless shelter,” she says. “It’s being very proactive and doing something to remember that person.”

Thomas advises families that during the festive season, they should prepare themselves for emotional reactions they may have to their surroundings.

“During the holidays, there are so many sights and sounds and smells that can trigger your grief,” she says. “Just by being aware of the triggers, and being more proactive around the holidays, families will feel less helpless. Grief is so encompassing, so if families feel more in control of handling their feeling of loss, it’s a great thing for them to be able to do.”

Established in 2002, the The Center for HOPE provides bereavement counseling to children, adolescents and adults. The center offers support groups for parents and children coping with a loss. Kids, ages 4 to 18, are able to attend support groups with their peers.

Thomas found that after the parents and children attend the center’s support groups, they leave more apt to talk to each other about their own feelings of loss.

“Very often, a lot of these kids will come in never having spoken to their parents about their grief,” she observed. “Then, on the car ride home after the group, the kids know the parents have been in the support group, and they’ve been in the support group, and so naturally, a conversation sort of happens and it’s very empowering for them to be able to do that.”

Parents and caretakers can accompany their children, plus attend separate adult support groups.

“When the whole family comes to HOPE, it gives them a sense of connection, a sense of unity, feeling like we’re in this together; we’re going to get through this together,” said Thomas. “It’s very powerful that they’re with so many other families going through the same thing.”

The Center for HOPE at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York [400 Lakeville Road in New Hyde Park, (718) 470-3123]. The center also offers two different eight-week support counseling programs for parents with specific losses — one for those who have experienced a perinatal, stillbirth or early infant loss; the other for those who have lost a child from later infancy to early adulthood. Individual counseling is not offered. All of the services offered by the center are provided free of charge to Queens residents. Ask for Susan Thomas, bereavement coordinator.

Updated 4:29 pm, July 9, 2018
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