Friday, December 9, 2011

Seasonal sadness

Death doesn’t have to steal the holidays

Express Staff Writer

Nearly 150 people gathered in the cold on Monday night for the annual lighting of a memorial Christmas tree and listened in silence as 444 names of loved ones who died were read. Photo by Willy Cook

Though adults often want to shield their children from the pain of loss, we are actually better served by following their lead in grief.

"They have a much better sense of creating balance in their lives," explained Carolyn Nystrom, executive director of Hospice and Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley. "They will grieve in spurts and pauses and then they will play. They don't have the burden of anyone's perception of how they are grieving or whether it's appropriate or not. A lot of people feel bad if they feel good."

The holidays can be especially contradictory for people, no matter if the loss was recent or years have past.

"It's a stressful time for everyone, but when you're grieving it seems to be even more stressful because you have that overlay of grief. You don't feel in sync with the rest of the world," she said.

Nystrom has spent 30 years helping people cope. Her office serves as an anchor for people in crisis or just in pain. Her biggest service she said, is not the free hugs or the compassionate ear, but the information she provides.

"What people need more than counseling is education and an understanding of what grief is, what are normal behaviors, what they should expect in terms of how they are feeling and then to have some strategies of how to cope with these normal feelings," she said. "Once they know what is normal, then they know if they are handling things well or not and if they need some more help."

One of the biggest inhibitors to grieving successfully is society's inability to slow down for a person whose life suddenly has a hole in it.

"Grief is different for everyone, but we are acculturated to believe that it means you have to be sad all the time," she said. "Likewise, it is not healthy to just power through it. Don't let the loss be the elephant in the room. Take the time to talk about how you are feeling and then plan how to incorporate their memories into your life as it is today."

An ideal situation is one in which people remain bonded to the person who has died in a way that is meaningful to them, and to modify their plans to suit how they are feeling.


That's especially acute in situations where the death has been sudden or unanticipated, as in an accident, heart attack or suicide, Nystrom said. She said 90 percent of the people whom hospice serves have been coached through a lengthy illness and have had time to make peace with their grief. In sudden instances, the grief often carries with it a heavy burden of anger or guilt.

"'If only ... ,'" Nystrom said. "You have a lot of unfinished business. The thing I tell people is feeling that way is good, it's normal. I'd be more worried about them if they weren't feeling those things.

"But no matter how they died, it's important to find a way to continue the bond you had in life with that person."

That's the spirit behind the memorial tree on Leadville Avenue in front of PK's Ski and Sports in Ketchum. On Monday night, about 150 gathered around the tree to listen to the names of loved ones lost. The 20-year-old tradition is designed to unite the grieving with their community, to remind them that they are not alone.

"We have some people who use the time as the anchor of remembrance for their lost [ones] that allows them to stop and celebrate their life and it allows them to move on through the holidays," Nystrom said.

Steve Pruitt's family was among the mourners this year. Pruitt died in October after a battle with cancer, leaving his daughters, Gariety and Kaley, and wife, Collett, heading into the holiday season without his joyous presence.

Gariety, 23, had noticed the tree over the years but never knew its significance as anything more than a holiday contribution. She said she was a little reticent about being so public with her grief; she and her sister and mother had comforted one another in recent months and relied on close friends for support.

"My mom said it best when she said how nice it was to put yourself in the context of the gathering," Gariety said. "Knowing that you all have gone through something and you can see they are still standing. It was a nice moment to see how those families have recuperated from the turmoil."

People poised to help:

Hospice and Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley is ready to help with volunteers all over the valley, facilitated group meetings and support. All services are free. Call 726-8464.

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