A softer place to land

Grief support for yourself or someone you care about

Lewiston resident Reca Thomasson writes poignantly in this issue about how she has navigated the holidays since the deaths of her husband and her father.

Coming to terms with her need to break from some traditions and establish new ones was a pivotal moment for Thomasson.

That and many of her other thoughts were echoed by Steve Button, a retired social worker and community volunteer, who offered additional suggestions both for grieving people and their family, friends and co-workers.

For the grieving

Button emphasized that everybody grieves differently.

“There's no right or wrong way,” he said.

It’s OK to change things up and make new traditions, to find ways to honor a loved one. But whether or how to do that is entirely up to the grieving person.

Traditions such as baking cookies, listening to Christmas music or going to see a light display can be comforting — but also difficult.

“You can do that, or you don’t have to do that this year,” Button said. “If you're going to do this and get all excited and change your mind, that’s OK. It’s OK to change your mind; it’s OK to back out of things at the last minute.”

What feels helpful can change day to day, moment to moment.

“It’s OK to not accept an invitation,” Button said. “Again, remember you can change your mind, and that’s OK.”

Sometimes, small changes won’t seem like enough.

“If you don’t have kids, it’s OK to just kind of skip the holidays,” Button said. “The holidays will come around again, and then you can make a decision about that when it happens.”

That’s only a viable choice, though, for families without young children.

“It’s really hard for the kids if you just say we’re not doing the holidays this year,” Button said. “It can be different. It doesn’t have to be as much. It can just be ‘some.’ ”

Button shared some suggestions from the Willow Center for Grieving Children, where he has been a longtime volunteer, for honoring and remembering loved ones at the holidays, such as lighting a candle and putting it in a window or making an ornament. Creating a “memory box,” for which family and friends write special memories on slips of paper that are pulled from the box and read on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is another suggestion.

Some families set a separate place at the table for the loved one who has died, and having children decorate a placemat or plate can be a way to include those younger family members.

“If the empty table space is really too difficult, you could invite a friend over and switch things up so you don't necessarily have that empty spot at the table,” Button said.

Including a favorite dish or dessert is another way to honor a loved one at a holiday meal.

Some families visit the grave and place a special object or note there, as well.

Families also might make a donation in their loved one’s name to a charity they liked or to an organization the family comes up with together.

Grievers often talk about being in a brain fog, about not thinking clearly, Button said.

“It’s OK to have that happen,” he said. “It’s OK to make mistakes.”

He suggests people make a list of things they don’t want to forget to do.

Finally, Button encouraged grieving people to ask for and accept help at the holidays, including with gift buying, making food or child care.

“I think it’s really good to be honest with others … about what you want and what you don’t want,” he said.

For family, friends and co-workers

The first suggestion Button made for supporting people who are grieving over the holidays is to stop avoiding the subject.

“Don’t not bring up their loved one because you think it will make them sad,” he said. “People most often are appreciative when you say their (loved one’s) name.”

He advises people not to say things like “I know exactly how you feel.” Instead, he suggested saying something like “I know it must be really hard.”

“My thoughts are with you” might sound like a platitude, Button said, “but I think it’s helpful.”

Telling grieving people what’s best for them is another no-no.

“Don’t insist that they do or don’t do something,” Button said. “You can put things out there and then people can take advantage of that — or not.”

The list of “don'ts” continues.

“Don’t say ‘Let me know if you need something’ or ‘Let me know what I can do to help,’ ” he said, because grieving people often won’t initiate that.

Instead, offer to do something specific, such as helping with buying or wrapping gifts, decorating, cleaning or bringing a meal.

Some “do’s” include sending a card with memories or photos, just sending a text to touch base two or three times over the holidays and giving grievers “a little bit of grace and understanding.”

That might mean recognizing a co-worker needs support at work and “being willing to offer some help or maybe step in.”

Honoring and remembering

Recognizing the permanent changes grief brings can help both grieving people and the people who support them.

“Grief is a lifelong journey,” Button said. “It’s not something you ever get over. Hopefully we all get through it, we work through it, but we’re always going to be on that journey. Hopefully we find ways to honor and remember our loved ones.”

Stone can be reached at mstone@inland360.com.

Grief support resources
Support groups:

Willow Center for Grieving Children, (208) 791-7192, willow-center.org, all services are free.

Grief Share, Orchards Community Church, (208) 743-1021, 13-week program starts in February, $20 for manual; program also offered at Grangeville Church of the Nazarene.

  • Online chat groups and support groups, online counseling.
  • Local therapists.
  • Family health care provider.
  • CHAS Health’s community behavioral health, (208) 848-8300, accepts insurance and Medicaid, payment is on a sliding scale

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