There’s a quote that speaks to Chaplain Kris Abbey, especially when she is sitting with people who are grieving: “In every heart there is an inner room, where we can hold our greatest treasures and our deepest pain.” — Marianne Williamson
“If we didn’t have these connections with folks, if we didn’t love folks, love others, we wouldn’t have this pain. But it wouldn’t be a life worth living,” said Abbey, chaplain and spiritual coordinator with Ionia Area Hospice and Hospice of Lansing. “If you love someone deeply, and you have that person in your heart, you’re also going to have that pain (of their loss) in your heart. That’s the normal human condition.”
In fact, in any major life change there is a grieving process and mourning, according to Vanessa Booth, a member of the Ministry of Consolation at Ss. Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Church in Ionia, where volunteers are trained to provide a caring and listening ear to anyone who is grieving anything.
“I see it as job loss, pet loss, divorce or death of a loved one,” Booth said. “We want to help people through that process.”
Just because grieving a loss is normal doesn’t mean it is easy. It’s difficult, and experts say it can be especially challenging at this time of year.
There are a number of reasons for this, including the change in seasons, which brings shorter days and less daylight. For many people, that leads to “winter depression,” also known as seasonal affective disorder, even if they haven’t experienced a loss.
“In the winter, people struggle even on a good day,” said Jennifer Scholes, a licensed master social worker and bereavement coordinator for Sparrow Hospice Services.
Add a loss into the mix, and the holidays that fall in November, December and January — with accompanying expectations — and people who have lost a spouse, a child or a good friend can have a tough time getting through it.
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s are often family-focused with lots of traditions, and that makes grieving especially difficult, said Scholes. There’s often pressure on those grieving to participate as they always have, even when they don’t want to or feel up to it.
Abbey agreed. The mindset for many people is that, to keep up the traditions, they have to do the things they’ve always done, the way they’ve always done them.
“That’s a heavy weight for people,” Abbey said. “It’s important they allow that freedom for themselves (to do it differently). That may be hard for folks to claim.”
Abbey encourages people who are grieving to think about what they want to do, what they’re physically able to do, and to make choices.
“You may not want to bake all the cookies this year, or to have everybody at your house this year,” she said. “Decide what you want to do and let your family and friends know … and that it’s for this year. Next year it may be different.”
Grieving takes more time than our society is willing to admit, Scholes noted. There’s often an expectation that people “should be getting over it” and “moving on” before they’re ready to. But grieving a close loss can take a full year — or more.
“There’s no ‘magic mark,’” she said. “It’s completely normal to feel the loss for a long time.”
The biggest thing someone who is grieving can do for themselves, and the people who care about the person grieving can do for them, is to give them permission to grieve in the way they need to.
There’s no right or wrong way to do that, unless the person is not eating, taking care of themselves, or has behaviors that might be dangerous to themselves, Abbey said.
“Sometimes folks pull away from their friends,” she added. “It’s normal not to want to be with people all the time, but when they are very different from what they were before, it may be time for a conversation. But remember: things are just turned upside down.”
One of the “beautiful things” offered through the Ministry of Consolation support groups is it provides a safe space for people who are grieving to express how they’re feeling, and they can grieve just as they need to, said Booth.
“When we have the fresh hurt of a loss at home, sometimes we are afraid to cry in front of our loved ones, because we don’t them to see us sad, or we feel guilty or whatever feelings we have associated with that loss,” she said. “This gives people a place to just come, get it all out, be angry if you need to, question things — whatever you need to do.”
The support groups also give participants a new strength that comes from sharing their grief with others, because they come to see their grief is not unusual or that “they are doing it wrong,” said Booth.
“Some people ask, ‘Should I be doing this by now, or shouldn’t I feel better, or they’re comparing themselves,” she said. “Theres no right way to grieve or no wrong way.”
The “first” holiday, birthday or anniversary without a loved one is going to be difficult and can bring back the feeling of loss and sadness. Sometimes the second year after the loss can be even more difficult, said Scholes.
“The reality is there is still sadness,” she said. “People think it will magically get better, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way.”
Loss affects people emotionally, but it also takes a physical toll. People who are grieving hold that grief in their body, said Abbey. They may have stomach aches, back aches, heart palpitations.
“Our body remembers, as well as our heart,” she said.
Cognitively, concentration goes “out the window,” said Abbey. They maybe start something in the morning, and then something else, and by the end of the day they see all the things they started but never completed. People who have had a loss often think they are losing their minds.
“That’s normal, too. It takes so much energy just to put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “If your patterns change dramatically — you get up at 3 in the afternoon, or maybe you can’t sleep, or physically the symptoms become so burdensome, or you’re feeling hopeless, it’s time to start thinking about talking to someone.”
It’s also common for those who have had a loss to wonder who they are, now that their spouse has died or now that their daughter has died.
“It may be months later that they’re figuring out their identity and their purpose now. If they were a loved one’s caregiver for months or years, and that’s gone, people wonder, ‘Who am I now?’” Abbey said. “They need to find a purpose. And that can take a long time.”
“Most people find it to be a safe space to continue to talk about their loss when they can’t in their social circles,” Scholes noted.
“We are here to listen,” Booth added. “We are not licensed counselors, we make that clear right away. We’re there because we have a love for God and we know God calls us to be compassionate and helpful to others.
“We have lost people, too, so we know the loneliness and the sadness and the emptiness, and we just want to be there and help people through that process and help them to not feel alone,” she noted.
Booth said participants in her six-week sessions, which include homework “to keep them thinking and moving forward,” offer support to one another along with the facilitators.
“They get so much more from each other than we can even offer. The main part of this is how they are consoling each other,” she said. “We never get over our grief, we just learn to embrace it in our lives and find a way through. … (but) we can’t get there on our own.”
Some advice when it comes to grieving
• Remember that each person’s grief is unique. There is no “prescribed path that everybody is on,” said Jennifer Scholes, a licensed master social worker and bereavement coordinator for Sparrow Hospice Services. “Everybody takes their own amount of time.”
• It’s important to find support from friends, family members, your community or professionals.
• Express your feelings. It’s helpful to talk about your grief, but if you don’t have a great support system, there are other ways to express your feelings. Journaling, music and art can help, too. Sometimes it helps to write a letter to the loved one, telling the person they lost what they feel or fear, what they are thinking about, and even write down how that person might be responding, according to Kris Abbey, chaplain and spiritual coordinator with Ionia Area Hospice and Hospice of Lansing. “It might help get some feelings out and help process the loss.”
• Be patient and take care of yourself. Especially during the holidays and at other special times during the year, it’s important to realize how much time and energy grief consumes, according to Scholes. It’s normal to feel more tired, especially when you’re involved in activities, so pace yourself and get plenty of rest.
• Getting stuck in denial, wishful thinking or sadness — thinking, “This is how I’m going to be for the rest of my life,” — can happen. When a person feels stuck and is not finding joy or happiness in anything, it might help to think about what the person they lost would want for them to feel, noted Abbey, “maybe not go out (on the town) but find joy in a beautiful garden.”
Jennifer Scholes, a licensed master social worker and bereavement coordinator for Sparrow Hospice Services, facilitates a support group for anyone who has experienced any type of loss from 4 to 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at St. Mary Catholic Church, 404 N. Division St. in Carson City.
Scholes also offers grief support one-on-one — in person or by phone — to individuals in Ionia County (including Hubbardston, Ionia, Lyons, Pewamo-Westphalia) and Montcalm County (including Carson City and Crystal).
The Sparrow Hospice Bereavement Program provides free short-term individual counseling, support groups, and educational literature about the grieving process and what to expect. Visit sparrow.org/hospice-bereavement online.
Group grief sessions at Ss. Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Church in Ionia are open to any who want support through their grief. Participants don’t have to be affiliated with any church or any religion at all, according to Vanessa Booth, a member of the Ministry of Consolation at Ss. Peter & Paul.
To learn more about the group grief sessions at Ss. Peter & Paul, call the parish office at (616) 527-3610.
Kris Abbey, chaplain and spiritual coordinator with Ionia Area Hospice and Hospice of Lansing, can make a referral to a support group or a counselor, or she can meet with individuals in their home or in the Ionia Area Hospice office by appointment at 319 W. Main St. in Ionia. Visit ioniahospice.org online.
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