Coping with grief during the holidays

Health & Wellness

December 19, 2018

Chaplain Vern Farnum spends the majority of his time in grief counseling. The holidays can heighten the sense of loss. He talks about coping with that loss.

“There are no rules for surviving holiday grief. Do what you need to do to survive. Honor your loved one how you need to, and do what feels best for your fragile, aching heart. You are missing a piece of you so do whatever you have to do to find a sliver of peace.” - Angela Miller.

A mother of a former IU Health patient recently shared this quote. She lost her 38-year-old son four years ago – a result of complications from kidney disease.

Another mother continues to grieve the loss of her toddler. As she anticipates the birth of her third child, she writes about missing her little one during the holidays.

Both women are part of a circle of family members, patients, and caregivers navigating the road of grief – especially during the holidays. Every road is unique, yet it’s a journey all too familiar to hospital clergy.

“The truth is, for a clinical chaplain, grief counseling is ongoing. Whether it’s loss of a loved one, loss of mobility, loss of function, loss of memory, loss of relationships, you are dealing with it every day. With every transition even though there is a positive gain, there is a loss. You are saying ‘no’ to something,” said Vern Farnum, interim director of spiritual care for IU Health.

Farnum’s father died 20 years ago, and every Christmas his grief is triggered by chocolate covered cherries – one of his dad’s favorites. “You remember those fond memories. They stick with you. Just like their birthdays. It’s something that will be a part of you forever,” said Farnum.

When he counsels patients and family members on grief, Farnum offers the following:

  • Grief is individual. No two people grieve the same way. “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross gave us a process for the five stages of grief, but we go through that path in individual ways. It’s not always linear. There are times grief bubbles up unexpectedly. Dr. Alan Wolfelt describes grief as an adjustment – adjusting to a new life.”
  • Prepare for those unexpected moments. “Thinking through family traditions helps you better prepare for the surprising emotional moments. Those moments will emerge at unusual times and often can’t be explained. It’s ok.”
  • Communicate your plans to loved ones. “Know what you want to do during the holidays and what you don’t want to do and communicate that with family members and friends. Tell them what you need from them.”
  • It’s OK to say, ‘No.’ “People may have the best intentions but only you can decide what is best for your well-being. Don’t feel guilty. You have limits. You are going to be tired even if you feel like you haven’t done anything. Grief takes a lot of energy and can take its toll on your body. Make sure you drink enough water and limit the alcohol consumption because alcohol is a suppressant and can compound grief.”
  • Talk about your feelings. “Find a trusted friend, family member, practitioner, or spiritual counselor and open up.”
  • Consider unique ways to honor your loved one. “Some families raise funds for a cause in memory of their loved ones and others build memorials. I have a friend in Georgia who is part of a men’s grief group that builds gazebos. It begins with a job and ends with men adding the names of their loved ones to the rafters and standing in a circle crying over their loss.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

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