November 22, 1997 in Features

Alone For The Holidays Painful Emotions Following A Divorce Or Death Intensify During The Festive Season

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The first year of Alecia Gaffney’s separation, her estranged husband picked up their daughters at 3 o’clock on Thanksgiving Day. Suddenly the remaining hours became very lonely.

“I was devastated,” Gaffney says. “I was left alone on a holiday and it was unbelievable.”

Gaffney spent an equally heart-breaking Christmas Eve that year. According to experts on grief and loss, Gaffney’s experience was hardly unusual.

“You may have thought you had an empty house, but just wait until you’re alone over the holidays,” says Bruce Fisher, author of “Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends” (Impact Publishers, $11.95.) “That’s the emptiest, loneliest house you can have.”

The following year, Gaffney planned for the holidays far in advance, and found ways to deal with her loss that mirrored the recommendations of experts.

Gaffney joined a support group called Beginning Experience at her church. She invited her new friends to join family dinners and filled empty holiday hours by accepting return invitations.

Now, 11 years after her separation, Gaffney has created a set of traditions that accommodate her children’s rotating holiday visitation schedule. When she has her daughters for the first half of Christmas break, they traditionally buy “Nutcracker” tickets, carol in the neighborhood and attend Christmas Eve Mass together.

On the opposite years, her children arrive at 11 a.m. on Christmas Day, counting on the Ice Capades in the evening, and sledding and slumber parties the rest of the break.

During the hours her children are away, Gaffney often accepts an invitation to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner, and visits a co-worker’s home for Christmas brunch.

“I now have a family of new friends,” she says. “I can either go to their homes, or have them over, for the holidays.”

According to grief and loss experts, the holidays exacerbate the painful emotions - anxiety, anger, depression, fear, sadness - people feel after a death or divorce.

“I think the holidays trigger a poignancy around loss that generates a new, deeper level of grieving,” says Guay Tippett, a mental health counselor at Northwest Counseling Group.

By planning ahead, even in the first year of grief, a holiday can be a meaningful time. It may remain painful, but it doesn’t have to be isolating.

“It’s not necessarily going to be a horrendous experience, but it is true it will hold much sadness,” says Eileen Lyons, bereavement counselor for Hospice of Spokane. “It just couldn’t be otherwise.”

Her advice to families and individuals facing a sorrowful holiday season: “The reality is there is a big loss in your life,” she says. “Your traditional plans may just not fit this year. They may be changed slightly or they may be changed dramatically.”

Most people will find the holidays less hurtful if they make plans with other people. However, individuals differ.

“It really depends on whether people have traditionally retreated or used sanctuary when they are in pain, or whether they connect with other people,” says Sue McClelland, a Spokane therapist. “Use what’s helped before in painful times.”

Newly single people may choose to spend a holiday alone traveling to a hot springs such as Ainsworth, for example, soaking in the water, writing in a journal and sitting before a warm fire.

It’s crucial that those who are grieving have a chance to express their feelings. Most people will want to surround themselves with good listeners.

“So many people don’t understand the need of the bereaved to talk about what has happened to them, use the name of the person who has died, and talk about what has happened in the past,” says James Miller, author of “How Will I Get Through the Holidays?” (Willowgreen Publishing.) “So many of us think it’s better not to talk about it.”

Spokane social worker Larry Cronin recommends that people give themselves “an out” at holiday gatherings. He often treats elderly people, and he suggests they tell their host or hostess not to worry if they disappear for a few minutes. That way, when the emotions become intense, they can quietly leave for a short walk, or a good cry.

Some families may design special rituals to honor a loss, lighting a candle for the loved one, setting an extra place at the table, or arranging pictures or other mementos in one corner of the living room. These rituals may encourage people to share their memories.

Families also may cast off traditions which simply don’t fit the year after a loss.

After Sonya Rose’s husband died of cancer 2-1/2 years ago, her family bought an ornament for the tree in his honor, but phased out the traditional meatballs and lefse of his Norwegian heritage. They served shrimp on Christmas Eve instead.

On the Christmas after her mother’s death, Tippett and her daughter flew to Hawaii. They attended a Christmas Eve service on the beach. “One of the qualities I enjoyed most about my mother was her sense of adventure,” says Tippett. “That holiday seemed very reflective of what she valued in life, and what I valued about her.”

Sue McClelland had a interfaith marriage for 30 years. After her divorce, she embraced the traditions of her Jewish childhood, lighting a menorah, serving potato latkes, and playing dreidel games for Hanukkah.

Families may also want to pare down their holiday plans to allow for the lack of energy they’re likely to experience.

“It’s important during the holidays that people really pace themselves, that they avoid taking on too much,” says Tippett. “Look for the quiet spaces and simplicity of those of those times, too.”

Tippett remarried this summer, but during the years after her divorce, she sometimes chose to spend an entire Christmas Day with her young daughter. They would dress up for a meal in the best restaurant they could afford, then return home to watch their favorite movies, play board games and create cozy memories.

“It was a real sweet, restful, intimate way to spend the day,” Tippett says.

McClelland teaches a course called “Parenting Children of Divorce” at St. Joseph Family Center. Particularly on those first holidays, she says, it’s important not to trap kids in the middle.

“After all,” she says, “you divorce each other, but your children didn’t choose it. It’s a loss for them either way.”

After McClelland’s divorce, she found it helpful to negotiate with her ex-husband to arrange their holiday plans. That way they avoided issuing conflicting invitations to their adult children, or planning identical celebrations.

“It’s hard on kids to have everything duplicated,” she says. “It’s like they’re taking care of the parents. They have to eat two turkeys. They’re obligated all over the place. It’s too much for them.”

The plans people make that first year don’t have to become tradition. It may be that after the grief has subsided, it will become easier to reach out and create new holiday celebrations.

“People who go through an experience like this do move through the grieving process,” says Lyons. “It takes time, but it happens. No one wants to do this, but it does lead a person back to life again, and back to reconnection with the world.”

Mike Palmer returned to his extended family in England after his divorce in 1991.

“I very quickly realized my family didn’t understand what I’d been through,” Palmer says.

By the Christmas of 1992, Palmer had discovered a new circle of friends in Spokane through Beginning Experience, and wound up inviting 14 other single people for dinner. He’s done that every year since.

At first, as Palmer participated in the church group, he felt uncomfortable expressing his feelings. Eventually, he opened up. In the process, he found he became more human.

“It’s like peeling layers of an onion,” he says. “There’s always another layer and there are more tears.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

SOURCES TO HELP GET THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS

Books

“Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends,” by Bruce Fisher, Impact Publishers, $11.95, (805) 543-5911.

“How Will I Get Through the Holidays? 12 Ideas for Those Whose Loved One Has Died,” By James E. Miller, Willowgreen Publishing, $5.95, (219) 424-7916.

Web sites

Willowgreen Publishing’s Web site at www.opn.com/willowgreen contains segment of Miller’s book, and tips on grief and loss.

Groups

Solo Strategies for Widowed Persons, which provides support groups, workshops and an annual conference. Call 484-8636.

Beginning Experience, a Christian grief recovery program for people who have lost a relationship through death, divorce or separation. Call Mike at 744-9882 or Ron at 747-2136.

New Life Ministries, a Christian group which provides emotional support, lectures and social activities for singles ages 40 and up. Call 622-3866.

Workshop

“Time to Heal,” a four-week evening workshop for adults going through a loss, Feb. 5-26, at St. Joseph Family Center. Cost: $30. Call 483-6495.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SOURCES TO HELP GET THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS

Books “Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends,” by Bruce Fisher, Impact Publishers, $11.95, (805) 543-5911. “How Will I Get Through the Holidays? 12 Ideas for Those Whose Loved One Has Died,” By James E. Miller, Willowgreen Publishing, $5.95, (219) 424-7916.

Web sites Willowgreen Publishing’s Web site at www.opn.com/willowgreen contains segment of Miller’s book, and tips on grief and loss.

Groups Solo Strategies for Widowed Persons, which provides support groups, workshops and an annual conference. Call 484-8636. Beginning Experience, a Christian grief recovery program for people who have lost a relationship through death, divorce or separation. Call Mike at 744-9882 or Ron at 747-2136. New Life Ministries, a Christian group which provides emotional support, lectures and social activities for singles ages 40 and up. Call 622-3866.

Workshop “Time to Heal,” a four-week evening workshop for adults going through a loss, Feb. 5-26, at St. Joseph Family Center. Cost: $30. Call 483-6495.


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