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Sunday, September 22, 2019  

Identifying Grief During the HolidaysPublished 12/18/2002

My son and I visited our family on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I was looking forward to spending it with my family, particularly my grandfather. He’s 86 and just retired from the ministry last year. I had a few ideas I wanted to discuss with him and was anxious to hear his opinions. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to talk.

My grandfather lives with my uncle and aunt. After my grandmother’s stroke and move to the nursing home last year, my grandfather decided his house was too big for just one. Although his house hasn’t yet sold, he moved in with his son (my uncle) this year.

I can thank my grandfather for my strong work ethic. During his ministry, he pastored small, often rural, churches, where he did everything from deliver the Sunday morning sermon to making repairs and sometimes even renovating the church building. As a retiree, he still works hard. When he lived in his house, he was always working on an improvement project of some kind or another. Now my uncle and aunt are receiving "free" home improvement, courtesy of my grandfather’s ingenuity.

His industriousness wasn’t set aside on Thanksgiving day. My grandfather decided the beautiful weather would make a perfect day to rake leaves. So while the rest of the family visited as we prepared lunch, he raked and bagged all of the leaves in my uncle’s yard. I wasn’t too concerned with this project, because as my aunt explained, this was his way of being useful while the rest of us were working on the meal.

My frustration grew later in the day when he shared that he planned to go over to his house on Friday to rake the leaves there (and climb up on the roof, with his 86-year-old bad hip, to sweep them off—I won’t get into this). My son and I planned to return home Friday afternoon, and Friday morning would be the last chance we had to visit with my grandfather. I was disappointed that he would choose to rake leaves rather than visit with us, but I knew I couldn’t change his mind.

When I returned to work on the Monday following Thanksgiving, I shared this story with a few of my co-workers, emphasizing my grandfather’s stubbornness. In my mind, it was his workaholic nature that propelled him to rake leaves on a holiday. It was after my co-worker pointed out that raking leaves might have been his way of dealing with a difficult holiday, that I realized it could have been grief that was propelling him to work. Although in hospice, we’re trained to identify and help others deal with grief, I had somehow missed it in my own family.

My grandfather has many things to grieve this year. My grandmother’s health is declining rapidly, and he fears losing her soon. This year he gave up the home that they had lived in together for nearly 20 years. Also, their oldest son passed away seven years ago just before Christmas. Had I thought of this, I would have had more patience and understanding for my grandfather’s need to be busy, but I let my own excitement about the holiday blind me to the needs of those I love.

As you’re celebrating the season, remember that those around you may not feel the same holiday spirit because they may be grieving a loss. Signs that a loved one is grieving include withdrawal from family activities (as in my grandfather’s case) or a change in routine of his or her daily activities. Other signs may include forgetfulness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, lack of energy, or complaints of health problems such as headaches or heartburn.

You can comfort a grieving person by offering your patience and understanding. Encourage your loved one to stay active, but be willing to give him or her space to grieve alone if he or she needs it. Help with chores such as shopping and housework and with holiday activities such as writing and mailing holiday greeting cards. Most of all, be a good listener. If your loved one needs to talk about his or her loss, take the time to listen.

Now that I look back on our Thanksgiving holiday, I’m glad I gave my grandfather the space he needed to cope with the holiday in his own way. However, I wish I had realized at the time what he was going through, so I could have offered him the opportunity to talk about his feelings. Hopefully I’ll have that opportunity during our Christmas visit. I hope you’ll be able to do the same if you have loved ones grieving during this holiday season.

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