Grief strikes at the holidays

Understanding, support can help seniors struggling with sadness

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat

Less than a week before Christmas, Pastor Steven Koski will light candles in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Bend to create the perfect setting for a special service that features long pauses between scripture readings and soft music.

The calm, reflective atmosphere of Koski's “Longest Night” service, which is held close to the winter solstice, is a sharp contrast to the normally joyous atmosphere that fills the church as he and his congregation celebrate the birth of their savior on Christmas Day.

It's an atmosphere that Koski said gives people who have lost a loved one, or suffered another loss, a place where they can mourn when everyone else is happy.

“We want to create a space where it's OK for people to be sad and acknowledge their grief,” Koski said as he explained the creation of his church's “Longest Night” service five years ago. “This time of year is just tough for some people ~ we want them to know they are not alone.”

Death and loss are a natural part of the aging process, said Tim Malone, a psychiatric social worker with Deschutes County Mental Health Services. He said older people often go through an “ongoing experience of death” as they age and see their friends, neighbors and acquaintances die.

“That keeps (a loved one's death) current and a makes the feelings more raw,” he said.

Malone said there is no set time frame for grief; he has a few clients who still mourn spouses they lost in World War II. The circumstances surrounding a person's loss and their relationship to the deceased vary widely from individual to individual.

But there is one common theme to this emotion: “Grief rears its ugly head during the holidays,” he said.

The intimacy and the family-oriented traditions and events that accompany the holiday season often remind people of the loved ones they've lost. These activities can also physically wear them out, he said, which makes the sadness much harder to deal with.

“The holidays are a difficult time for anyone who is grieving,” said Diane Kellstrom, bereavement coordinator for the Hospice of Redmond. “The table has one less person. The conversation has one less voice. ~ For some people it can be overwhelming just to make it through the end of the day.”

But rather than pretend these feelings don't exist, Kellstrom said, it's important to recognize them and include room for them in a person's holiday plans.

Room for grief

Kellstrom has a few simple rules families can follow to help make room for a grieving family member and enjoy their holiday celebrations.

Families should be flexible with their holiday traditions and be willing divvy up responsibilities so the person who is grieving is not overburdened with chores at a time when they are emotionally exhausted.

“Maybe we go out to dinner this year so nobody has to cook,” she said, offering one suggestion families could consider.

She also said its important to make sure the grieving loved one has an escape plan from activities like church services or Christmas parties just in case their emotions get the best of them or they need time to be alone and rest.

Most importantly, Kellstrom said, people need to realize that seniors often suffer many losses when a spouse dies. They may experience a significant reduction in their income, loss of a crucial part of the support system that helped them live independently and the difficult transition from being part of couple to being on their own.

All of these issues, especially the financial one, only add stress to the sadness someone feels when a loved one is not there.

“It's just family communication,” Kellstrom said, adding that the buildup to a holiday is often more stressful than the holiday itself. “Family members have to figure out what everybody needs and how they can help each other through the process.”

People can also find help with their grieving process by joining a support group like the Soup and Support group the Hospice of Redmond holds on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Much like Koski's “Longest Night” service, these meetings create an atmosphere where mourners can be with others who share their experience.

“They feel safer,” Kellstrom said, adding that her agency's grief support calls typically pick up in October as people struggle with spending another holiday season without a loved one. “They feel supported and they don't stand out as being different (because they are sad).”

'More than life itself'

Ruth Locke will grieve this holiday season, her first since her husband, Joe, died this summer after a 12-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

“There's not really a lot to celebrate about the holidays this year,” she said in a frank interview about her feelings since her husband's death. “To be honest with you, there's no way to make grief any better.“

The 80-year-old Terrebonne resident said she loved her husband with all of her heart - even though he could not remember her name when he died - and will cherish every minute of the 24 years they spent together. Before they moved from Florida to Central Oregon four years ago, Locke and her husband spent their holidays working with a harmony group that did shows at nursing homes in their community.

She usually sang during these performances while her husband read poetry and acted as their sound man.

“Once in a while, he'd sing with us,” she said.

During these concerts, Locke and her band members made sure they played at least one song the audience could relate to. She said that faces would light up, no matter what their condition, whenever they heard a tune they knew from childhood or that gave them a special joy.

In 2008, a hurricane ripped the roof off the couple's home in Florida. They left the Sunshine State at their children's insistence, taking residence in Locke's daughter's second home in Redmond.

The couple stayed in this house, where Locke said they played the piano and sang together often, until she couldn't care for Joe by herself and put him in a nursing home. Locke then moved in with her daughter and son-in-law.

“I would suffer all sorts of agony and guilt for what I had done, but I knew it was for the best,” Locke said.

She visited her husband as often as she could and would play piano for him whenever she had a chance. These experiences created a memory in Joe's mind that stuck even as his disease reached its final stages and started erasing his identity.

“He didn't know who I was, but he did know I was the piano lady,” she said, remembering her last experiences with Joe before he died in late July. “I loved that man more than life itself ~ It was very hard to see him die so slowly like that.”

Locke found a lot of help dealing with her husband's death when she took part in the Hospice of Redmond's Transitions program earlier this year. She keeps in touch with some of the people she met through this program and may also attend a luncheon her church is hosting for people who suffered a loss.

For the holiday season, Locke is planning to ceremoniously mark Joe's absence by placing a miniature Christmas tree he kept in his nursing home room on the piano she plays at home. But she's also remembering a promise she made to herself right before his death.

“When I knew Joe was leaving me,” she said. “I decided I was still going to be alive, because that's what he would have wanted.”

To that end, Locke said she has started playing the piano after taking a break from it after her husband's death. She's also picking up an old holiday tradition and giving performances at area nursing homes like the one where Joe lived before he died.

“They are always happy to hear the music,” she said. “And I'm happier when I come back (from these concerts) than I have been for quite some time.”