Today I am sharing something not too many of my writer family knows about me. I lost my sixteen year old son, Eric, in 1996 to suicide. I’d love to report that I’m over his death, but the truth is, his death is something I know I will never get over. But I have learned to deal with my loss of him.
December is hard for me, and I know it is for countless others who are dealing with the loss of their loved ones. Eric’s birthday was December 7. Last year my daughter gave me my first granddaughter born on his birthday.
Ms. Charlotte Joann is named after my mother who died two years after my son. In the span of two years, I lost two people I loved.
For years after my mom died, I’d break out her tree even though it was so old the limbs wouldn’t stay in their holes and my husband had to put yarn around it to attach it to my wall so it would stand up straight and not fall over. It was my way of keeping her with me during the holidays she loved so much. Two years ago, I finally bought a new tree and was able to let Mom’s go. But it took time.
And then there are Eric’s homemade ornaments, my treasures he made me in school. As I hang them on my tree I’m brought back to a time when he was alive, and I begin to grieve for him all over again.
Seeing holiday family movies or Christmas commercials can trigger grief. The family dynamic has changed. The holidays have become a painful reminder of what we’ve lost.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge those of us who grieve and to offer some expert advice to those going through this process.
Today I have Dr. Debra Holland as my guest. Debra is a corporate crisis/grief counselor who consults with companies that have experienced robberies, accidents, sudden deaths, and other critical incidents. She received a master’s degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy and a PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
Dr. Holland worked for American Airlines after 9-11, counseling flight crews and staff. She counseled the victims and families of the Metrolink train wreck in 2002. In 2005 she volunteered as a mental health relief worker in Louisiana for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She also volunteered as a mental health relief worker during and after the 2008 fires in California. In 2011 she counseled the Superstorm Sandy victims in New Jersey.
Debra, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, has written The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, published by Alpha Books. She is currently writing Aftershock: How Managers Can Help Employees Cope With the Death of an Employee.
She is here to help us understand the various kinds and levels of grief, how people are trained to experience grief, and ways to get through the pain and achieve some level of comfort.
Thank you, Debra, for sharing your vast experience today on my blog.
Can you explain how society deals with grieving people?
Debra: In our society, we don’t really know how to deal with grief, and thus we tend to avoid discussions about bereavement and loss. When it comes to a death, there is nothing we can say or do to fix the “problem” like we can in most other circumstances, and that leaves people feeling helpless. Most people either say time-worn and unhelpful platitudes, avoid those who are grieving, or both.
The death of a child or a suicide (or in your case the death of a child by suicide) is even more difficult to talk about because the situation is so complex and tragic. The death of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Other parents don’t even want to think about such a tragedy, much less talk to a grieving parent.
People who are grieving often feel isolated, which makes them feel worse. What others need to know about the bereaved is that you don’t need to use words to offer comfort. Silent support and listening can be very helpful.
When I was writing the chapter on the death of a child for my book, The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, every single parent I interviewed cried when he or she talked about the child no matter how long ago the death had happened. In one of my first interviews, I apologized to the mother for bringing up the painful subject that caused her tears. She said that any time she had a chance to talk about her daughter Megan was a “good day” even if she cried.
One man told me that after his 25-year-old son died in a car accident, the most comfort he received was a visit from an acquaintance. The visitor didn’t try to talk. He just listened. The bereaved father talked about his son for an hour and showed his visitor the family photo albums. That time of sharing meant so much to him.
Diane: In my family, when my son died, my husband dealt with his death differently than I did. My mother cried constantly and I couldn’t be around her because I knew how badly he had hurt her. I couldn’t deal with her pain because mine was so raw. My daughter was three years younger (12 years old; her birthday is March 24, he died on March 13) than my son, who was sixteen when he took his life. I tried to talk to her about the feelings she was going through, and she refused to talk to me about him or her feelings. Now, seventeen years later, she told me she didn’t want to hurt me, and I now know her feelings. It only took seventeen years!
What are the differences between men and women, younger and older, on how they cope with loss?
Debra: First of all, everyone copes with loss differently based on their gender, personality, the type of loss, past history with loss, and other life circumstances. In general, men tend to not talk about their feelings, so sharing their grief can be very difficult for them. Also they might feel they have to be “strong” for their families. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he’s not deeply feeling the loss because he doesn’t talk about it.
A husband and wife might mourn differently, so they don’t feel on the same page with their grief. He might feel anger, and she might cry every day. Understanding this about your spouse or other family members is what’s important.
Children can feel protective of their parents, especially if mentioning the death makes their parent cry, something they might never have seen until the death happened. They also become “lost” in the grief of the rest of the family.
For that reason, it’s important to discuss the idea of crying not being bad–that even if mommy cries, talking about the loved one is comforting. Also provide nonverbal ways for children to express their feelings such as drawing pictures or writing in journals. A grief support counselor or group can be helpful because it provides a safe place outside the family for the child to process and express his or her feelings.
Diane: Is there a difference in the way a person grieves because of the circumstances of what caused the death? Two years after my son’s death I lost my mother who had been ill for a long time. I experienced her death quite differently than my son’s death, which was unexpected. Though I grieved for Mom, in a way I was happy to see her go because she wasn’t suffering anymore.
Debra: Absolutely. As you mentioned, the relief from suffering is a huge comfort. Your mother was no longer in pain, nor were her loved ones suffering in watching her go through the dying process. Also, I’m sure you had time to prepare yourself for her death, to have necessary and important conversations about the past, and to say good-bye.
With a sudden death, which there is no preparation, no chance to say good-bye. The shock can take a long time to wear off. And in the case of suicide, there are so many other feelings and questions which complicate the grief.
Diane: I can say now, seventeen years later, I’m on a different level in my grief than I was 10 or even 5 years ago. I no longer cry every time I think about him. I can finally think about what his life was about and not linger so much on the “why” or “how” he died.
Debra: As a loving parent, you will think about him and miss him and sometimes cry for the rest of your life.
Diane: Thank you! ((HUGS))
Your book, The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, talks about the different levels of grief. Can you explain what those are?
Debra: The term “Stages of Grief” frequently is spoken and written about when actually no such process exists. Grief doesn’t flow in an ordered process from one stage to the next. Instead, it’s very messy and complex. Your emotions and reactions can shift from moment to moment and day to day. It’s like riding a rollercoaster that has plenty of loops and even goes backward. What’s important is to be kind to yourself on the journey and not to have expectations for how you (or others) SHOULD feel.
Diane: For me, the holidays are a triple whammy. I drag out my homemade Christmas ornaments my son made for me in school, my son’s birthday is December 7, and my mother WAS Christmas. She absolutely loved it. She decorated, cooked, and had more holiday spirit than everyone I’ve ever known. I still try to keep our family together, but it’s been hard. I am not my mom or my dad (we lost him in 2004). We went from a family where we had to do three Christmases in one day to trying get family members together for one. At times it feels like we are losing each other.
Debra: In addition to your grief over the deaths of your loved ones, you are mourning the loss of the holidays you had—grieving a time and place—as well as people. Your fears about the family and future holidays can also make the present ones more difficult.
I suggest you discuss your concerns with your family and invite them to be honest with you and each other—regardless of how it might make you feel. They can’t share concerns and feelings if they think you’ll cry. Reassure them that your tears are not a reason to hold back on communication.
Perhaps on some level many of them feel there is too much pain associated with Christmas. Maybe other issues need to be addressed. Maybe you can do something else as a family that happens at another time of year, which will affirm your bonds, so you don’t feel like you are losing each other.
Dr. Debra’s Tips for Weathering the Holidays
Share how you’re feeling with trusted loved ones, especially the way your grief has changed or deepened due to the holiday.
Reduce your stress. This isn’t the year to worry about a perfect celebration. Only do what you feel is necessary.
Ask for help. Others will be happy to step forward to lend a hand. Let others know specifically what you need. Don’t say, “Can you bring something for dinner?” Do say, “Can you bring dessert for 10 people?”
Find a way to memorialize your loved one. Set out a special candle. Hang their stocking with the others and have everyone write a letter to the deceased. You can read them together on Christmas morning. Make an ornament with their picture on it or buy one that represents them in some way. Include the deceased in a family prayer.
Don’t let others direct how you should spend the holidays. Just because someone thinks it would be best for you to go away for the week doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Be of service to others. Helping others is a way to give new meaning to the holiday and help you feel better. Prepare and serve food at a homeless shelter or organize a gift drive for some needy families and deliver the presents yourself.
Realize that you might feel overwhelmed and exhausted, both from your reactions to the loss and from the stress and hectic pace of the holiday. As much as possible, get to bed early and take naps.
You don’t have to pretend to be happy. If you think your sadness might be a problem for others, have a little talk with them beforehand about how you and they will handle your feelings.
Spend time with people who are supportive and caring. By now, you know who among your friends and family is supportive and who’s not. Gravitate to the understanding ones and avoid the others.
During the holidays, you can’t help but think about and miss your loved one. However, try as much as possible not to dwell on your pain. Imagine your loved one being present in spirit. Instead of his or her absence, focus on the presence of the other family members. Your loss helps remind you of how precious time is with your family. Appreciate and love each one of them.
Diane: If you haven’t read Dr. Holland’s book, The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, you really should. It gives concrete advice to help the healing process of grief. It is also very helpful for those who counsel the grieving as well as those who’ve experienced loss.
Thank you so much, Debra, for sharing my blog today. You certainly helped me and I think this topic will help many people.
Debra: Your welcome!
You can also connect with Debra at:
Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Debra-Holland/395355780562473#
My thoughts are with all of you who have lost someone. Please know you are not alone. Be good to yourself.
Peace be with you and your family,
Below are book and web resources taken from Debra’s book as well as a few I have used. These can help you or someone you love cope with grief, not just during the holidays, but every day.
101 Ways You Can Help: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving by Liz Aleskire. http://www.amazon.com/101-Ways-You-Can-Help/dp/1402217560
Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Raise Our Children by Allison Gilbert. http://www.amazon.com/Parentless-Parents-Mothers-Fathers-Children/dp/B0057DC6AC
The Grief Recovery Handbook: Action Programs for Moving beyond Death by John W. James and Russell Friedman. http://www.amazon.com/Grief-Recovery-Handbook-Anniversary-Expanded-ebook/dp/B001NLKYIS
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. http://www.amazon.com/When-Things-Happen-Good-People/dp/1400034728
The Grieving Garden: Living With the Lost of a Child by Suzanne Redfern and Susan K. Gilbert. http://www.amazon.com/The-Grieving-Garden-Living-Death/dp/1571745815
The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child by Barbara D. Rosof. http://www.amazon.com/The-Worst-Loss-Families-Death/dp/080503241X
One Foot in Heaven by Heidi Telpnet. http://www.amazon.com/One-Foot-Heaven-Heidi-Telpner/dp/0982678436
Healing Grief: Reclaiming Life after Any Loss by James Van Praagh. http://www.amazon.com/Healing-Grief-Reclaiming-Life-After/dp/0451201698
www.aamft.org (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy) A national website for professionals and couples looking for marriage and family advice.
www.aarp.org/famililies/grief_loss (American Association of Retired Persons) Grief and loss articles, support for seniors.
http://www.afsp.org (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) A national group website that provides support, education and advocacy for the prevention of suicide. It also has a page where you can honor your loved one who lost his or her life to suicide.
www.cancer.net (Cancer resources, including help for planning end of life care.
www.aplb.org A website for pet loss.
www.compassionatefriends.org A nonprofit, self-help support organization for families who have lost a child. (This group helped me tremendously!)
www.grief.net A website for helping people move beyond loss.
www.griefwork.org (The National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved) A faith-based bereavement ministry.
www.memory.com A website for creating an online memorial.
www.suicidology.org (American Association of Suicidology) Help with all issues suicide, including those grieving the loss of a loved one due to suicide.
www.try-nova.org (National Organization for Victim Assistance) Assistance for victims of crisis and crime. You can also call 1-800-TRY-NOVA.
Blog edited by Sally Berneathy!