Coping with grief during the holidays

Experts share positive ways to handle loss

By: Andy Kozlowski | C&G Newspapers | Published December 24, 2014

 “Through Death to Life" is a book by local author, Ron Gries, that offers advice on how to get through the grieving process of losing a loved one.

“Through Death to Life" is a book by local author, Ron Gries, that offers advice on how to get through the grieving process of losing a loved one.

METRO DETROIT — Grief is like a rollercoaster. And the best way to handle it is to get swept up in the ride.

That’s one way Ron Gries likes to describe it. The Bloomfield Township man lost his wife to illness in 1997, when he was 60. Since then, he’s become a volunteer for Hospice of Michigan (HOM), and made a ministry of counseling survivors on grief management. He’s even authored a book on the subject — “Through Death to Life.”

Grief comes and goes in waves, he said. There’ll be good days, and then all of a sudden, there’ll be bad days. But the good days will return, Gries said. It’s just a matter of being emotionally honest with yourself, and allowing yourself to vent your pain.

“You have to embrace the grief. You can’t run from it; you can’t hide from it. When that pain comes, you just have to feel it, with everything you’ve got. You’ll cry, and you’ll hurt, but the pain will go away — it always does,” Gries said. “While it’s there, you have to let yourself feel sad and pull that pain through you. In time, it won’t come as often or be as heavy-duty when it does.”

To return to the rollercoaster analogy, it will be as though the twists, turns and sudden drops of the ride are lessening, in both frequency and intensity.

But it’s a process to reach that point. And Gries says there are important things to keep in mind, both for the one mourning and those offering their support.

For those mourning, “The first and most important thing is to believe you can heal,” Gries said. “That’s how I survived my wife’s death. I decided, ‘I am going to heal, and I will get through this.’”

He knew that’s what his wife wanted for him. So he took the love of hers that he had already internalized, and that is always with him, and resolved to get better in time.

The second concept is “Do the grief work.” The tears, the pain, the heart-to-heart conversations — all expressions of the healing process.  

“Again, you can’t bypass this,” Gries said. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is getting my life back after losing my wife. But it’s all part of the process.”

The third concept is “Be not afraid.” Losing a loved one is a very strange experience, Gries said. Often, it doesn’t make any sense, and it can make one feel confused and afraid. But this, too, is normal.

The fourth concept is to “Find the joy.” A loved one may no longer be present in an earthly sense but is still there in spirit, Gries said, and to be happy is to honor their spirit. There should be no guilt in feeling joy. At the same time, there should be no guilt in feeling sad, either. Sorrow is natural after the passing of a loved one.

“But even in the worst times, there are opportunities for joy, and you should take advantage of them,” Gries said. “Your loved one hasn’t gone anywhere. Their spirit is still with you. They want you to be happy. And you have an obligation to get your life back if you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do on this Earth.

“Albert Einstein, a great mind, once said we’re here to serve others,” Gries said. “And when asked how we know when our mission is finished, another great mind, Richard Bach, once said that if you’re alive, it isn’t.” 

And that leads to the fifth concept: “Say ‘yes’ to opportunity.” When one is grieving, they are often low-energy — they’re not eating right, they’re not sleeping right. They’re tired and they don’t feel like doing much. But when you can muster the strength, Gries recommends taking the opportunity to get active.

For him, this took the form of volunteering at HOM. But it doesn’t have to involve an organization. It can be as simple as baking cookies for a neighbor, helping someone carry their groceries, or smiling at everyone you meet and sharing some warmth with them.

Karen Monts, director of grief support services for HOM, said she has seen how volunteering can help one to heal.

“As they say, it is better to give than to receive, and there is some truth to that,” Monts said. “It doesn’t take away from the person’s loss — they still need to receive that love and compassion in order to move through their loss journey — but there is also something very therapeutic in taking our mind off our pain or ourselves, and reinvesting that energy in others.”

Those trying to support someone in mourning need to be patient and let the grieving person grieve. Simply being there for them, and providing a listening ear when needed, makes a world of difference, Monts said. One should be attentive to the cues provided by the person in mourning — sometimes they’ll be upbeat and talkative, but other times they’ll just need space. 

“Rather than asking, ‘How are you doing,’ I like to ask, ‘How are you doing today?’” Gries said. “It shows you know they’re in a different place each day. It’s not a straight line to healing.” 

Those who are mourning can help loved ones help them by sharing their feelings. This can be especially useful during the holidays. Gries said the first holiday after the loss of a loved one should be treated like a “clean slate.” 

“Essentially, you keep the things you want to do, and you don’t do the things you don’t want to do, and you communicate this,” Gries said. “For me, I didn’t want to put up a Christmas tree. My girls were on board right away, but my son didn’t like it. He said, ‘Dad, we’ve got to have a tree!’ And I said, ‘Would you want to come from Chicago a day early and put it up?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ And so he did.

“Now take dinner,” Gries continued. “How do you make one while you’re grieving? Well, maybe others can negotiate and divide up the duties to pull it off. And if you need a moment to rest, when you’re grieving, when you’re more tired than ever, just take a break and tell the others you’re going to rest and don’t want to be disturbed for a while. It’s OK to be ‘selfish’ in this situation — you need to take care of yourself. People aren’t used to doing that, but that’s what you need to do while grieving during the holidays.  Take care of yourself, and don’t worry about feeling selfish. But try to communicate.”

Reaching out to family, friends, spiritual advisors and caring professionals can help. So can social media, where reminiscing can lead other people to share happy memories.

And there is great healing potential in ritualistic or symbolic acts, whether it’s enjoying the favorite meal of the deceased, preparing a seat for them at the table and everyone taking a turn sharing their thoughts, or doing something charitable in their name.

“It’s about celebrating life,” Monts said. “It contributes to healing. It really does.”

For more information about Hospice of Michigan, call (586) 263-8854.