Near the altar where I stood 10 years earlier to co-officiate their wedding ceremony, I rested at a podium as my eyes shifted between my brother-in-law seated on the front row of the church and my 36-year-old sister, who was now resting in a beautiful pink and white casket.
On April 20, 2023, my 3-year-old niece moved restlessly in her father’s arms as her 8-year-old sister leaned on her daddy’s lap, listening to those who spoke well of their mother. It had been a completely different scene just 11 days earlier.
On Easter morning, as I sat on the window sill of her hospital room, we laughed between her drifting off to sleep and requesting fruit and salad the nurses had stored for her. “Bring a couple of slices of that ham back,” she told her husband as he left the hospital room to head home and check on their children. While we knew metastatic breast cancer had made her condition terminal, it didn’t stop us from gathering around her in prayer and believing in the hope of resurrection.
As my family navigates this holiday season without my sister Ratanya and my great-aunt Albertha, who died a few weeks before her in March, I recognize that we are not alone. Many are grieving the transition of loved ones who were with us last year and those who have long transitioned.
“Grieving is not a process of forgetting, but it is a process of remembering with less pain,” said licensed professional counselor Johnnie Johnson-Griffin, who spoke at a recent Southern Regional AHEC “Navigating Grief During the Holidays” training.
“Any loss can be experienced at 100 percent,” Griffin said. Losses are defined as anything valuable to you and can include the loss of pets, marriage, pregnancy, vision, limbs, dreams, and even the loss of innocence, just to name a few of the many losses that may cause someone to grieve.
If you have recently experienced a loss, pay close attention to your body. Symptoms of grief go beyond crying spells, but you could experience symptoms that indicate there is a change in the functioning of your mind and body. Loss of sleep, numbness, anger, and a rise in blood pressure are only a few of the symptoms, which may also mirror more serious conditions like heart attack. Those experiencing grief could also experience tightness in the chest and a choking feeling in the throat.
Children’s grief should also be noted this time of year. “Grief does not exist in a vacuum; it impacts the entire family system,” said a board-certified music therapist and medical family therapist, Elizabeth Bautista, who works with children and families at Duke Cancer Center, Duke Children’s Hospital.
Children may have dreams about the deceased, exhibit withdrawal or restlessness, and have anger responses that adults and guardians must help them manage. You might tell a child, “It’s okay to be mad, but I can’t let you hit me or destroy things in the house.” Bautista noted that ripping up a newspaper may be an alternative way for them to get that energy out of their bodies.
Adults can help them feel safe again and understand death. They can also give children opportunities to talk about their loved one, and create space for them to mourn. “Let a child be a child,” Bautista said.
There can be comfort both in keeping holiday traditions and making changes due to the absence of a family member. As you prepare for holiday gatherings, do not be afraid to speak the name(s) of your loved ones and cherish the sweet memories shared. “Grief isn’t always sad,” said Kimberly A. Franco, founder of One Common Bound. The space grief holds for even joyful memories, which explains why I still laugh uncontrollably at some of the inside jokes and petty text messages exchanged between Rae and me. While sadness saturates some of my days, I am comforted by remembering how Rae’s faith in God encouraged her medical providers and others navigating cancer diagnoses.
“If you are grieving, have a plan,” said community grief advocate Tamara Leigh Hardee. Your plan may include letting people know that you don’t feel like making the six potato pies you usually bake or that you may attend a gathering but might not stay the entire time. Hardee suggests being honest with those around you and communicating things like, “Please be patient with me; I didn’t sleep well.” Writing a “share letter” may also be helpful to help you avoid having to tell the same story over and over about possibly how your loved one died or communicating what immediate needs you might have.
Hardee added, “Grief is normal, but it sure doesn’t feel normal.”
The Community Grief Coalition provides resources and supports the development of outreach to meet the needs of those experiencing grief. Tamara Leigh Hardee serves those in the Sandhills and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crisis Hotline: 9-8-8, Text: 741741