When it comes to helping a parent — or close friend — face that first holiday season without a beloved spouse, Vicki Panagotacos, a life transition and grief and loss counselor based in Los Gatos, Calif., suggests talking as early as possible about how the holiday will be observed.
“Often the immediate family will agree to celebrate the holidays in a different way the first year,” Panagotacos said. Someone who has just lost a spouse shouldn’t have to feel obligated to decorate and recreate the family holiday tradition, especially the first year or two after the loss. “It might be wise for another person to volunteer to coordinate the main activities the first holiday after the death,” she said.
“The grieving spouse should speak honestly to family and friends when they are invited to join holiday activities,” Panagotacos said. “Everyone will feel more comfortable with what ultimately might transpire if the widow or widower warns their hostess that they may feel the need to cancel at the last minute. And if they agree to attend, they want the option of leaving early. Forewarned, the hostess can support the grieving individual’s desire to leave and allow them to slip out without fanfare.”
Panagotacos noted that the greatest gift the recently bereaved can be given is support. “The holiday season is a grueling time for those who are grieving,” she said. “There is little comfort to be received, but there is a lot of support that can be provided. While it is a natural inclination to want to comfort a person who is in emotional pain, words of reassurance sound shallow to a person experiencing fresh grief.”
She said some of her clients have told her they felt stunned when they attended a holiday gathering and no one mentioned their lost loved one.
“Generally family and friends don’t bring up the deceased for fear of upsetting the surviving spouse,” Panagotacos said. “Does it work? Of course not. Everyone is upset and should be. It is healing to admit the holiday is just not the same without their loved one, and it is a good time for each person to tell their favorite holiday story of the deceased doing something warm, wonderful or funny.” — By Brian Goslow