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Community Wellness: Managing Grief During the Holidays

December 10, 2017
Community Wellness: Managing grief during the holidays

My grandfather spent most of his life looking for and trying to re-connect with his family. They had abandoned him early in life. As a young boy, he found a job caring for the elephants, in a traveling carnival, on the eve of the Great Depression. I don’t know much about what happened during that time, because he wouldn’t talk about it. He preferred living with his thoughts and feelings rather than sharing them. Even though I experienced tremendous personal loss myself, I always felt sad for him.

At Christmastime though, he seemed to emerge. He filled the house with decorations on the first morning following Thanksgiving. He was always the first one in the neighborhood to put up a Christmas tree. He also had a little cardboard Christmas village with a dozen little buildings, each the size of a small coffee cup. He found a way to light them up and made fake snow and other accessories to complete it. He was like a little boy anticipating Santa Claus and all good things to come. He made the season wonderful for himself and those around him. He made sure that there were plenty of treats and candy throughout the house and lots of Christmas lights. He loved Christmas lights. This year will mark the 28th Christmas since he passed away.

I think about the loss of my grandfather a lot during the holiday season. My mother died when I was a young boy and my father was long removed from the family as well. So, my grandfather, whom my brothers and sisters and I lived with, was very important to us. He carried a lifelong grief for his own lost family while caring for us and our grief. I am sure it was a daunting task.

“Grief,” writes author David Richo, “is a piggyback emotion. It climbs on the back of previous grief and can weigh us down.” If we don’t take active steps to manage it, it can disable us. I know this is true for me. The holiday season does not make it easier. Mark Nepo, a favorite poet of mine, says, “We are faced with the never-ending choice to become the wound or to heal.” We have a choice, he writes, in which direction we want to go and whether we heal or not.

I have found several ways that help me cope with grief during the holidays that include: 1. getting lots more rest, including frequent naps; 2. talking often to my friends and family members; 3. surrounding myself with indulgences that I like, including watching movies, reading books, listening to my favorite music, eating lots of “junk” food and looking at photos that remind me of the good memories; and 4. seeking professional therapy. Yes, even therapists need therapy from time to time.

My 13-year-old-daughter loves Christmas. She starts the day after Thanksgiving by singing Christmas carols to all of us, getting out the Christmas decorations and putting up the tree. This joy maintains itself all the way through the week after Christmas. Even then she refuses to allow us to put the decorations away until after Jan. 6, which she claims is the date that Jesus was revealed to the Magi and therefore is the official end of the Christmas season. She loves giving presents, more than getting them, and usually finds unique ways of gift-giving that always include “personal coupons” that can be redeemed throughout the year. She never met my grandfather. But, like him, she helps me realize that, even though I have grief and loss from the past, there is a future to embrace.

Robert Lathers, LMSW, is the CEO of The Right Door for Hope, Recovery and Wellness, formerly Ionia County Community Mental Health. His email address is He welcomes your comments and questions. If you have a mental health emergency, call 9-1-1 or our 24-hour crisis line at 1-888-527-1790. Visit The Right Door online at and find us on Facebook. The Right Door in Ionia is now open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.