Alberta Cancer Foundation

Healing Traditions

Sylvia and Larry Bisson had been happily married for 30 years. With their two boys now grown up, talk was turning to future plans when Larry’s heart unexpectedly stopped the night of Sept. 23, 2006.

“I did not have Christmas for the next two years,” says Bisson. “I could not have a Christmas tree in the house. That’s the last thing Larry bought before he died.”

In 2009, Bisson and her two sons and daughter-in-law pulled out the box from storage, turned up the music and assembled the eight-foot-high tree, pre-lit with hundreds of little white lights. “Christmas was his favourite time of year and putting up his tree together was life-giving.” Now they make an occasion of decorating “Dad’s tree” each year.

For most of us, the holiday season is a joyful time, a merry whirlwind of home baking and house decorating, letter writing and gift wrapping, last-minute shopping and getting together with friends, colleagues and family. But for someone who has experienced the loss or death of a loved one, it may be the most dreaded time of the year.

“Society encourages us to join in the holiday festivities, but all around us are sights and sounds that reawaken memories. And what triggers memories will trigger emotions and feelings,” says Mark Sloan, a social worker with the Medicine Hat Cancer Centre and member of the palliative care team at the Medicine Hat Hospital.

For more than 20 years, he has helped people through the grieving process.

Grief, he explains, follows a loss of any kind: “Anything that takes the loved one out of the normal routine of life can result in grief – whether through an expected or unexpected death, an illness such as a stroke, or a disease such as Alzheimer’s.”

Dr. Richard Worden has a doctorate in grieving. He retired in 2006 after 25 years as a social worker with family services in Medicine Hat and now provides social work services at the Health Matters Medical Clinic, part of the Palliser Primary Care Network.

He says a grieving person often dreads the first milestone celebration of any kind, be it a birthday, anniversary, Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day. But, he clarifies, if the loss falls around an important date, the grieving person may still be in shock, and the loss may be more keenly felt the following year.

The best way a family can help someone in mourning during the holiday season is to acknowledge their loss. “I call it the elephant in the room,” says Worden. “When everyone is gathered around the dinner table and there is one less place setting, don’t pretend that nothing has happened. Acknowledge the elephant.” He encourages families to remember the loved one by lighting candles, putting flowers on the table or including their name in a toast or a blessing.

Worden says communicating and planning are key to helping families cope with their grief. “Share ideas on how to approach the holiday season. Keep your traditions but do it a little differently. Do a potluck dinner or go to a restaurant.” Talk to the grieving person and ask what you can do, he suggests. Can you write cards together? Go to the cemetery with them? “Be present in their emotions. Ask what their thoughts are. Let them know you still care about their loss.”

Talking about death is not something our society does very well, admits Sloan. “We don’t know what to say or how to comfort someone in pain.” He says it’s not uncommon to hear family members tell a grieving person that it’s time to get on with things. “We want them to show us they are okay – but that often serves to repress their emotions of grief.”

He encourages family and friends to be available and be good listeners. “We need to reach out and ask what we can do, rather than giving them a solution like ‘you need to keep busy.’ They, in turn, need to teach us what it is like to grieve, to go through that first Christmas or anniversary without a loved one, so we can help them.”

Beth Tchir, who lost her husband of 20 years to colon cancer in February 2005, chose to keep to their traditional Christmas dinner because it was important for her teenage children to be with their supportive family. But on Boxing Day, they headed for the hills for a few days of downhill skiing in Banff. “We always skied together as a family. Bob loved it, and it made us feel good remembering him.”

Sloan says even when people have moved on in their new lives, they may still have bursts of grief. It doesn’t mean their reaction is unhealthy; it means they are remembering someone in a loving and caring way. “Grieving is both a necessity and a privilege and it comes as a result of having given love and received love.”

Tchir says she has learned not to hide from her memories and that it is okay to feel sad and have a cry. “I accept it as a blessing that I had Bob in my life for 25 years, and I am grateful for that. I learned so much and loved so much being with him. That gives me strength.”

Honouring Loved Ones

There is no prescription to take away the hurt, but there are things we can do to help prepare for the holidays.

What a grieving person can do

  1. Acknowledge that the holiday season will be different and difficult, and accept offers of assistance.
  2. Be willing to talk about your grief and your needs. Find friends and family who will listen to you about what you are feeling. Sometimes you may need to initiate the conversation.
  3. Honour your loved one by lighting candles, giving a gift in their name or including them in a prayer or toast.
  4. Eliminate stressors and choose activities that bring peace and joy.
  5. Look after your health, nurture yourself and learn something new.
  6. Accept the grieving process, reminisce and celebrate relationships.

What family and relatives can do

  1. Let the grieving person talk about their feelings and what happened. Listen without judgment. There is no need to fix their feelings.
  2. Ask what they need for that special occasion and what they want to do.
  3. Spend time with them. Help with errands and tasks, like gift and food shopping, writing cards, baking and decorating the home.
  4. Plan ahead for holidays, birthdays and other annual events. Encourage family traditions, but don’t be afraid to do it a little differently, if only for one year.
  5. Show you care. Ask what they’re thinking or what you can do for them.