The holidays are fast approaching. With Thanksgiving knocking on the door and Christmas and Hanukkah not far behind, it's easy for us to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the season.
For those that have experienced a loss, whether the loss has just occurred, or it has been years, the holiday season can bring difficult feelings and emotions. Loneliness and longing can be felt deeply; and sometimes a sense of not belonging, or not fitting in can be heart-wrenching. This can be especially true for families of first responders that have died, especially those who were involved with department holiday celebrations. Even no longer dealing with the craziness of holiday shift work, overtime, and calls in the middle of the night can be tough to handle. The loss of routine, even stressful routine, can expound the feelings of grief.
For those of us that have not been through a loss and experienced first-hand the emotional impact of loss and the holiday season, it may be difficult to know what to say or do. People have a tendency to avoid individuals experiencing trauma and loss if they feel awkward about their encounter with that individual. If you know someone who has experienced a loss, here are some great tips by Dr. Helen Harris, assistant professor in Baylor University’s School of Social Work, on how you can support that person this holiday season.
Listen more than talk. “It is OK to say, ‘I don’t know what to say but I want you to know that I care,’” Harris said. “It is a better choice than saying nothing, or saying things that judge and marginalize.”
Acknowledge the loss and express your caring. “Be available; be present to say a word about the special life that is gone. Ask if there is a holiday-related task you can help with. Will they be alone for the holidays? Invite them over or take a meal to their home if they are not ready to get out and be around others. Offer to help with Christmas shopping or wrapping.”
Find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays. “I recommend families find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays: to light a candle on the mantel to burn through the day as a symbol of his continued presence, to make an ornament with her name and place it on the tree, to talk about their roles and be intentional about who will assume those roles now of carving the turkey, etc., to use at least one of their favorite recipes for a holiday dish.”
Take time to tell stories and look through old photos. But don’t push it. “If folks find it too painful, there should be no pressure to do it,” Harris said. “There will be other holidays, other times and other gatherings.”
Ask what helps and be open to what doesn’t. “I ask the bereaved person to tell me what the experience is like for them and I ask what helps or doesn’t help them.”
Avoid “helpful” actions that are actually hurtful. “When you stay away, pretend it didn’t happen or walk the other way in a store so you don’t have to say anything – those things hurt,” Harris said.
Understand that there’s no set time frame for someone who suffers a loss to be “over it” or “move on.” Harris said adjustment to loss is a long process and tends to get worse before it gets better. Those not closely connected to the loss will move on with their busy lives while the person who has lost a spouse or child or parent will experience fresh loss over and over again for the first year while facing the first birthday, anniversary, Christmas, vacation, etc. without the person with whom they had always shared those moments.
If the individual(s) you know is the family of first responders that have died, by all means, continue to invite them to participate in department holiday functions. Send them a card or a small gift to let them know that your agency has not forgotten them. Include them as much as possible. They may choose to not participate, but for many families, the invitation makes them still feel important and remembered.
Acknowledgement, support, and a listening ear is what is key to helping an individual struggling with loss get through the holiday season. It's not about the words you say, it's more about the actions you take. Showing someone that you care and are thinking about them and their loved one is what matters. Friendship lessens the burden of loneliness. A kind gesture can alleviate the sting. You really can make a difference to a person that is hurting this holiday season.
As a caveat, while this article was written for those experiencing the loss of a loved one, we want to acknowledge that there are many first responders that have experienced trauma and grief due to tremendous loss of property in the devastating hurricanes and fires that have occurred the last few weeks and months. There is a tremendous amount of pain and suffering that those individuals experience during the holiday season as well. Many of the same tips that are offered to those grieving the loss of a loved one can be applied to those that have lost their home and property in such a devastating manner. While we don't compare the loss of a life to the loss of a home, the pain and grief is still very real to a person that has lost all of their possessions. We need to remember to support and care for those individuals as well.