Lisa Henson had no reason to believe that this particular year would be any different than all the others. She had been through the usual life struggles, but overall things were going well. Then the unthinkable happened. In the spring of 1999, her brother Mike died in a terrible fishing accident one week before his 40th birthday.
“Nothing prepares you for something like this,” says Henson. “I felt the worst pain I had ever experienced in my life. At first I was in shock, thinking this is just a terrible nightmare. Slowly it sinks in that this is very real and he is never coming back.”
As the holidays approached, Henson and her family talked a lot about Mike, remembering his laid-back personality, and his beautiful smile.
“Talking about him and celebrating his life seemed to make the holidays and every other time of the year easier to get through,” Henson shares. “I thought I would never get over the pain. I still think about my brother all the time. We were not very close. I think that is part of my grieving process…realizing how much we missed out on and wishing our relationship had been closer. Time has made it easier, but I can tear up right now just thinking about him.”
The loss of a loved one or a traumatic experience can make the holiday season especially tough. Grief experts say there are things friends and family can do to make a difference during the holidays for those who grieve.
Be supportive. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate. Let him/her decide how he/she will celebrate the holidays.
Encourage him/her to be realistic about what he/she can and can’t do. If doing all the decorating and cooking is the norm, ask if he/she would appreciate a break or offer to help with some of the load.
Remind him/her to eat nutritious meals and to get plenty of rest and exercise.
Be available. Sometimes it is just nice to have someone listen. Don’t worry about saying anything. Just listening can help the healing process.
Sharing memories can be helpful. Henson recalled how helpful it was to share memories of her brother at his funeral and with friends.
Don’t rush the grieving process. Well-meaning friends may think the grieving process should move at a faster pace, but everyone deals with grief differently. If you truly believe your friend or family member is having difficulty, you may want to encourage him/her to seek professional help.
Offer to spend time shopping, baking, volunteering or going to a holiday play. Sometimes just doing these activities with another person makes it more enjoyable.
“I think I experienced every type of emotion that exists,” Henson says. “Once you get through the weird emotions it gets better. I really had a hard time going back to work. Many people opened up their arms to my family and me. Their love and friendship continues to carry me through this journey. You think you have forever with family and friends, but you never know what tomorrow will bring. The death of my brother made me realize that every day is precious. We all have to guard against falling into the busyness of life and take the time to be there for each other.”
Even if you haven’t experienced a loss, you probably know someone who has. Make it a point to lift their spirits this holiday season.