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Grief support: ‘Surviving the Holidays’ offers coping tools after a loved one’s death

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 14, 2021

GriefShare facilitators Arlette Popiel and Sue Tarmann, photographed Tuesday, are offering a free seminar titled “Surviving the Holidays” at Hennessey Valley Funeral Home. The in-person sessions are at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
GriefShare facilitators Arlette Popiel and Sue Tarmann, photographed Tuesday, are offering a free seminar titled “Surviving the Holidays” at Hennessey Valley Funeral Home. The in-person sessions are at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

After the death of a loved one, the loss can feel magnified during the holidays as friends and family gather. Normal traditions might bring sadness instead of joy.

Yet, you aren’t alone in your grief. That’s at the core of GriefShare, a program that offers a seminar, “Surviving the Holidays.” Two separate, in-person sessions are free of charge and scheduled at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hennessey Valley Funeral Home.

The seminar also is set to run online Monday via Zoom. Each holiday-themed session covers topics such as how to deal with emotions, what to do with traditions, tips for surviving social events and how to hope for the future, said Sue Tarmann, a facilitator.

“It’s an amazing tool for those who are going through this, especially for the first holiday after a loss,” Tarmann said. “But it’s viable for anyone who has lost someone and they’re still struggling, even if it was five years ago.”

The seminar includes a book, also free, with the help of Hennessey as a sponsor, said Arlette Popiel, another facilitator.

“I think the holiday season is particularly hard after the death of a loved one because people are at such loose ends,” Popiel said. “One of the things they talk about in the seminar is planning. You’re less likely to get blindsided if you plan what you think you’ll be able to do, and then it’s being able to convey that to other people.”

Each session runs about two hours, depending on discussion time. It starts with an overview, then a GriefShare video, followed by questions and sharing.

Popiel and Tarmann aren’t counselors, but they’re trained through GriefShare to lead the discussions and review the materials. The video includes comments by counselors.

Additionally, GriefShare support groups meet weekly at several regional churches and at Hennessey. Popiel said the group support sessions run for 13 weeks but are structured so that people can join at any time.

The group sessions and occasional seminars – including one on the loss of a spouse – are all church-sponsored, nondenominational Christian programs through the international GriefShare, Popiel said.

Most sessions are free, but some sites charge for the book material only, she said. That information is listed on the website

Popiel said friends and family of someone grieving aren’t always sure what to say after a death. One person who loses a spouse might be offended if friends of the couple offer a regular invitation to a weekly dinner, when another individual might feel sad about getting left out. Grief is different and individual for each person, she said.

“In some ways, it’s really up to the grieving person to let the people around them know what their needs are,” Popiel added. “People want to help you, but because people are so individual, they don’t know how to help unless you tell them.”

As an example of planning ahead, people can reflect on what holiday traditions or strategies feel comfortable. It might be to drive yourself to a gathering, with the mindset that you can leave after an hour. The video depicts a couple, who after the loss of a daughter, had a quiet signal between them to leave if one had enough.

GriefShare once helped Popiel realize she needed to tell others when she wanted invitations to holiday celebrations again after staying away for a while. Her mother-in-law outlived her husband by about six years.

“She started to get dementia,” Popiel said. “She’d been a wonderful mother-in-law up to that point. She decided I never did anything for her; she just didn’t like me. It was very uncomfortable for me to be at family gatherings.”

Popiel stopped going for a few years, but after her mother-in-law’s death, she realized by listening to group discussions that others in her life weren’t aware that she wished to return.

“GriefShare helped me to be able to say, ‘I really want to spend the time with you.’ I might have never thought of just saying out in the open that I’d really like an invite.”

The session can help people plan for the holidays and hear tips about how to deal with well-meaning people.

“GriefShare helps people understand everything they’re feeling and what’s happening to them is normal,” Tarmann said.

“It’s helpful because if they have lost someone, whether it’s a spouse or family member or friend, that is someone who is an integral member of their life.”

What’s also encouraged is for people to connect, and sometimes new friendships are formed.

“We kind of open the floor to be able to connect with people,” Tarmann said. “There is also material they point out about the 13-week program that GriefShare has.

“They can join at any time.”

People have to go through a process that takes time and eventually settle into a norm for the holidays going forward, she said. Some will decide they can still hold traditions, while others won’t, and they make changes.

“We do not give advice,” Tarmann said. “We give them materials and help them, but we don’t ever say ‘You need to do this.’ ”

“We help them see the options and gather the tools, and we’re always there for them, but we are trained GriefShare facilitators – we aren’t counselors.”

Popiel added the groups also discuss how some people might need to stay away or alter holiday traditions for a while, but they don’t need to feel guilty.

“It’s teaching them that the feelings are normal, and grieving is part of a normal process,” Popiel said. “If you don’t grieve, then at some point all those emotions are going to come out either in physical ailments, or you take it out inappropriately on other people.

“Grieving is important both for your health and for the ones around you.”

To go to “Surviving the Holidays,” people aren’t required to pre-register, Tarmann said. “Anybody can just come.”

Tarmann found GriefShare while in a previous job at Heritage Funeral & Cremation. She had worked with family members devastated by loss. After a pastor told her about GriefShare, she began the training.

Her mother died many years ago, which was a traumatic time when she was young, Tarmann said.

“I didn’t deal with it well; there wasn’t GriefShare then,” she said. “God led me on this path in my last job.”

A search by ZIP code on the GriefShare website can help people find a support group. The holiday-themed seminar is held each November at various sites.

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