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Coping with Grief and Loss and the Holidays

Wed, 12/23/2020 - 10:04

Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly this year on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset during the coronavirus pandemic. The following transcript is of her conversation with KFIN’s Brandon Baxter on 12/22/2020.

Listen to the full audio interview here.

I am sad to hear that your family is going to have a very different Christmas experience than you were hoping for. 

Man, we had to quarantine over Thanksgiving and didn’t get to see my mom (our only grandma) so we were really looking forward to enjoying Christmas together. We had isolated except for one person – as Murphy’s law goes, that was the one person who tested positive (still one of our favorite people in the world). So we will do exactly what I suggested people do a couple weeks ago – we will use this year to celebrate differently (opening presents over Zoom) and hope that we can get together in a few weeks.

I believe you prescribed staying in your pajamas all day, eating all the junk food you can, and playing board games with the family.

We will be doing all kinds of lazy and fattening, and enjoyable things. I have bought all of the junk food everyone requested. We will take tons of pictures and videos because it will be memorable, that’s for sure.

But, quite frankly, it’s an opportunity for my husband and I – and our children – to practice resilience and to have perspective and gratitude over what we still have, in spite of the disappointment. 

You talk a lot about resilience and gratitude. Excellent lessons for adults and children, no doubt. 

To me, these are two of the most important life lessons. Life will be difficult for all of us, in different ways, and at different times. Developing the ability to experience disappointment – even real sadness and pain – and to be able to cope with it in healthy ways is one of the most important lessons I want to teach our children. I spend a lot of my day teaching this to adults. It is much easier – they can actually develop a strong sense of resilience - if they’ve seen it modeled by their parents and practiced it in smaller ways as they’ve grown up. 

When we were talking before the show, you said that you thought this was one of the most important on-air conversations you had prepared for – handling grief and loss. I think you might even have been a little nervous to talk about it? 

Yes. It is nerve wracking in a different way than just the jitters I get from being on live radio! I think that is because I have so much respect for grief. I have sat with so many people – my own family and friends included – who are experiencing an unimaginable amount of pain. So when I was preparing for our talk this morning, I understood the magnitude of the topic and I prayed that my words would offer comfort to those who are hurting and to encourage those who are not hurting right now – not in the midst of acute pain or loss – to feel equipped and eager to reach out to those who are. To understand how, very easily, they can be a vital support to others. 

We talked a couple weeks ago about how so many people are experiencing significant changes and loss due to Covid. But the holidays are a source of grief for a lot of people anyway, and now the two are combined. How can people even deal with so much? 

You know I got so many messages last night. People wrote in and said “talk about being alone at the holidays,” and “what should I do if I have a parent in the hospital.” It’s so much more difficult when you have Covid looming and even other compound stressors. There is even a term for it – complicated grief. When you lose a loved one but cannot be with them to say goodbye, if their last wishes can’t be honored, if you can’t have a funeral and grieve together, it can make the loss seem unreal and difficult to accept. Loved ones left behind can feel guilty about not being physically present for their loved one in their last moments, they can become very distressed about not having the traditional spiritual or religious rituals performed, and they can feel extremely isolated if they are unable to receive the in-person support they need after the death. 

So how can we help if we are not in the middle of grief? What can the rest of us do to support our friends and loved ones? 

If you are fortunate enough to not be struggling right now, it’s a wonderful time to reach out to others who are hurting. If you are struggling right now, it’s a wonderful time to reach out to others who are hurting. Remember I said that pain is incompatible with doing for others. If even for a few minutes of distraction, if you can force yourself to get out of your own head – out of your own pain – and do for others, you will feel relief. And the more you can shift focus, the more relief -and joy - you can began to feel.
So many people think if they bring up the loss (of a job, of a home, of a loved one) they’ll remind the grieving person of their loss. But people who have experienced loss overwhelmingly say that it’s already on their mind all the time. They want to talk about their pain or the person they are longing for. So asking “How are you? I know this must be a tough time for you right now,” – just allowing them time and space to talk is one of the most compassionate and helpful things you can do. Certainly, if they don’t want to share, that’s fine. But know that you have honored them and their loss by offering your time and support if they do need you, now or in the future. 

Just honoring their loss and what it all means for them. Over time, when they are going to feel a little better or lighter, that’s how we can contribute. 

My mom told me a story when I was preparing for this show. She said her Grandmother lost a son who was hit by a drunk driver on his way home from the war for Christmas. Every year after that at Christmas, even fifty years later, she would say, “It just don’t seem like Christmas without Edward.”  She went on to raise several children and grandchildren but this let me know she never stopped grieving for her child.  

For those of you who have experienced a loss, I hope that you find a way to honor your loved one this holiday season and every day after that. I hope you find a way to incorporate their memory in every holiday. I hope your family and friends ask you about them and you talk about them and ya’ll share stories. I hope you take time to go for a walk or to sit quietly with a cup of coffee or allow yourself a really good cry, and just think about them, how special they were, and I hope you can smile and find a little peace. Take so much care of yourself and be gentle and allow your feelings and grief. How blessed they were to have someone who loved them like you do. If you don’t know where or how to even begin to imagine a life without them, I hope you start by thinking “How would they want my life to be?” What would bring honor to their memory?” and then work from there. I hope you can find your own purpose in the loss that will sustain you and honor them. 

I know that the grief over the loss of a loved one never leaves a person completely. The loss stays with most of us forever. But it changes over time, right? It might start off as completely overwhelming, but it seems to become a little smaller over time.

I came across this analogy online about how grief is felt by many people and thought I’d share it with you if we had the time. 
Imagine your life is a box and the grief you feel is a ball inside of the box. Also inside the box is a pain button:

In the beginning, when the loss is so fresh and new, the grief that many people feel is overwhelming and large. The grief ball is so large, in fact, that every time you move the box — just moving through your everyday life — the grief ball can’t help but hit the pain button.

The ball rattles around the box at random, hitting the pain button every time. This is how many people initially experience loss. You can’t control it and you can’t stop it. The pain just keeps coming pretty regularly, no matter what you do or how much others try and comfort you. The pain a person experiences may feel unrelenting and never-ending.

Over time, however, the ball starts to shrink on its own:

You still go through life and the grief ball still rattles around inside the box. But because the ball has gotten smaller, it hits the pain button a little less often. You almost feel like you can go through most days without even having the pain button hit. But when it does hit, it can be completely random and unexpected. Like when you’re staring at the person’s name in your friend’s list, or come across their favorite video or TV show. The pain button still delivers the same amount of pain no matter how large or small the ball is.

As time passes, the ball continues to shrink and with it, our grief for the loss experienced.

Most people never forget the loss they experienced. But over time, the ball becomes so small that it rarely hits the pain button. When it does, it is still as painful and hard to understand as it was the very first time we felt it. But the frequency of the hits has decreased significantly. This gives a person more time in-between each hit, time used to recover and feel “normal” again. Time also allows our hearts to heal and to begin to remember the person as they were in life.

So, grief is never experienced the same way for any two people. But it helps to know that grief impacts most of us in a way where the pain is intense at the beginning, but the frequency (if not the intensity) of the pain lessens over time. Most of us walk through life, carrying our own box with a ball of grief inside of it. 

I think it’s so good to remember when we interact with others, because they may be struggling with their own grief ball in the box. And if someone is struggling or grieving right now and they need support, they can call Families Inc. 870-933-6886 for services. Telehealth and in-person services are available. 


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