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11/04/2020 11:01 PM

Tidings of Comfort and Joy?

Joanne Baker Deal, a licensed professional counselor along the shoreline, says now is a good time for those who are grieving to think about coming up with a plan for the holidays. Photo courtesy of Joanne Baker Deal

A seminar on surviving the holidays after bereavement and during a pandemic will be offered on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 11 and again on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 15. The seminar will address the fact that the approaching holiday season promises to be anything but business as usual due to social isolation, six-foot distancing, and cautions against large family gatherings,

Those grieving the death of a family member or a friend may be dreading the holiday season. The sadness can seem unbearable. And, due to the ongoing pandemic, they may be left with little in the way of the kinds of social supports upon which one can usually rely.

For those who may wish to go to sleep for these next two months and wake up on Jan. 1, here are some steps that might help reduce stress and loneliness.

Holidays Trigger Tough Emotions

One tip is to learn what emotions are normal and what can be expected when facing the holidays without a loved one.

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed as this holiday season approaches, that’s very normal,” advises psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, whose husband died. “You’re probably wondering how you’re going to handle this and are unsure of what course to take. I want to assure you that you can get through these holidays, and hopefully you can even find moments of joy.”

When you know what to expect, you won’t be rendered helpless as holiday events trigger unexpected emotions.

Make a point to spend time talking with people who have experienced a past loss and have already been through a holiday season without their loved one. They can help you have an idea of typical emotions and emotional triggers to expect. These people can also provide much-needed comfort and support.

Creating a Holiday Plan

Another important step in surviving the holidays is to create a healthy plan for the coming season.

“Planning does help you to have a little control, even when you feel totally out of control,” says Zonnebelt-Smeenge.

A healthy plan involves making decisions in advance about traditions, meals, time spent with others, holiday decorating, gift-giving, and commitments.

Most likely you will not have the energy or the interest in doing as much as you have in past years. Decide ahead of time which invitations you’ll accept, and let the host or family member know that you might leave early. COVID-19-related restrictions on group gatherings may also mean fewer invitations, so that is nothing to take personally.

Consider whether your decorating will be different this year: perhaps a smaller tree or simpler ornaments might be in order. If you cook or bake, cutting back is fine if that helps.

“Make a list of every holiday tradition you can think of, from music to presents to outings,” recommends Joanne Baker Deal, a licensed professional counselor along the shoreline. “Then decide which traditions will be too difficult without your deceased loved one, which traditions you’d like to maintain, and what new traditions you can start this year.”

Communicating with Family and Friends

Another helpful key to facing the holidays is to communicate your specific concerns and needs with your family and friends.

People in grief are often tempted to pretend things are fine, especially over the holidays. Your friends may want you to “cheer up” and “have fun,” when that’s the last thing you want. Others might avoid you because they don’t know what to say and don’t want to make you feel worse.

Some family members may give you wrong advice in a misguided attempt to help. All of these people likely mean well, but will only end up hurting you if you don’t communicate what you truly need from them.

As difficult as this may be, it’s important to tell people what they can do to help and what they are doing that isn’t helping.

Deal recommends, “If you don’t have the energy or inclination to talk to people face-to-face, then write your thoughts, concerns, and needs in a letter or email. What’s important is that you are being honest and gracious in your communication.”

In describing the first holiday dinner after she was widowed, Zonnebelt-Smeenge says, “It seemed like no one wanted to talk about my husband. I kept waiting for somebody to bring up [his name]. After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore. I excused myself and left and bawled all the way home. Later I decided maybe they were waiting for me to decide if it was okay to talk about him; maybe they were afraid if they said anything, they’d make me feel worse. From that time on when I went to an event, I found a way to let people know I wanted to talk about him and I wanted to hear their stories.”

The upcoming GriefShare seminar can help those who are grieving find out what emotions to expect over the holidays, how to create a healthy plan and how to communicate with family and friends these coming weeks.

The seminar, will be held twice, Wednesday, Nov. 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and again, Sunday, Nov. 15, 1 to 3 p.m., both via Zoom.

Sponsored by Christ Chapel of Madison, this two-hour seminar offers practical, actionable strategies for making it through the holiday season.

Participants will view a video featuring advice from people in grief who have faced the holidays after their loss. They will also hear insights from respected Christian counselors, pastors, and psychologists. The Holiday Survival Guide, with practical strategies, encouraging words, helpful exercises, and journaling ideas for daily survival through the holiday season, is available through for $5 plus shipping.

The group will also view a 15-minute video in a similar format, GriefShare: Grief and COVID, addressing issues that are specific to this season of social isolation.

At GriefShare Surviving the Holidays, participants will meet other grieving people who have an understanding of what they are going through. No one is judged, nor is anyone required to share. Each individual is accepted where they are at. Leaders and other participants offer comfort and support.

“At GriefShare,” says Deal, “participants realize there is no one way to grieve, but there are different ways to grieve that are equally valid. In addition, it’s actually healing to learn that you’re not the only person on the planet that is experiencing these emotions.

“Your holiday season won’t be easy; your emotions may ambush you and suck you under at times,” notes Deal, who is also the church’s GriefShare ministry coordinator and lead group facilitator. “But you can choose to walk through this season in a way that honors your loved one and puts you on the path of health and healing.”

To learn more about GriefShare Surviving the Holidays or to register and receive information for the Zoom meetings for either date, and ordering the survival guide, contact Joanne Deal at 860-304-5695 or