Making grief beautiful during the holidays

It’s the elephant in the room during this time of year for a lot of families, individuals, and the people that love them. Pete Shrock from Comfort Zone Camp gives a lot of solid advice and insight for all of the above.

If you were watching the Today Show this morning, you might have caught a glimpse of Pete Shrock of Comfort Zone Camp. Anchor Savannah Guthrie, who lost her father when she was young, sort of adopted a family who was spending its first Christmas without their mom, Jen. They featured a clip of Pete leading a CZC group that included the family as they worked through their feelings.

Comfort Zone, which is based in Richmond but extends its loving, hugging arms across the country, runs camps, workshops, training, and all sorts of completely no-cost resources for kids struggling with the pain of losing a loved one.

Grief during the holidays is an annual struggle–so much of a pressing issue that Pete Shrock had advice and thoughts immediately at the forefront of his brain when I called him. Here are his thoughts about how the very absence of a person can throw a wrench into enjoying the holidays, and how you can turn grief and mourning into a positive thing.

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Sharing is critically important

Susan Howson: Like, sharing your thoughts and feelings and memories? Or sharing objects, space, and time?

Pete Shrock: Well, all of it, really. Encouraging others to share what we’re feeling, letting each other to know there’s a safe place for us to talk about things, owning our own voice and encouraging people to feel free to do that. Share whatever is significant and important to you. Share that this is difficult. Not everybody will know that.

We’re complex which means grief is going to be complex. It’s going to be situational, and it’s going to be fluent and it’s going to be informed as we get older. We have to be open to the process, which means really scary things because it means no one’s got the answers, not even us.

The other side of this is that people who lose people in their lives have to be able to open up. If someone doesn’t know that you have a loss in your life, they don’t know to be conscious of that in conversation. We can’t expect the world to change, we have to help influence it.

Acknowledging the grief

PS: It’s OK to feel sad at times, especially as you’re celebrating or the celebrations are unfolding around the holidays. People are really intuitive, and it’s important to be as authentic as we can be when we’re in conversations with people that are grieving. Don’t say “It’s going to be OK,” which can minimize it or diminish it.

SH: But what can we do if we know someone who lost someone, what can we say? My best friend lost her mom during the holidays a few years ago, so it’s painful for her in multiple ways. How can I help her?

PS: We’ve always confused sympathy and empathy. People want to say “Oh, I’m so sorry for you,” or they want to ignore it altogether because it makes them uncomfortable. Often, someone just needs a companion. You don’t have to say anything; sometimes you just have to be there. It’s important sometimes just to acknowledge it. “I know this is a difficult time to manage this, and I can’t imagine what it would be like, but I’m there for you.” People who are grieving feel like they don’t have control over anything, and the last thing they want is pity.

If you see them sitting in a moment that is significant to them, be willing to sit next to them and not even say anything. Presence speaks a lot. It’s OK to take the pressure off them.

Encouraging creativity and honoring tradition

PS: Holidays are steeped in traditions. when someone dies it fractures our vision of what the holiday meal looks like or dad’s chair is empty. Create new rituals for the family, sharing pictures, conversations about funny times, and when that person was around.

This means structure. As much structure as you can keep in place during the first couple holidays after the death. It helps create that structure more importantly for the kids in the family. That helps.

Staying on top of self-care

PS: If you can’t take care of yourself first everyone around you is going to suffer from that too. Slow down during the season, let the family follow your lead. Take inventory of what’s important and what’s not and plan accordingly. Your priorities after a death and what’s important changes. We see that all the time–something that seemed really important before will seem so irrelevant and so insignificant.

SH: I just read The Year of Magical Thinking [Joan Didion], which explores the idea that grief isn’t something to be conquered or overcome. It’s something that has to be done. And it also talked about how mourning is a really active process.

PS: Absolutely, grief and mourning are natural, beautiful ways of the body regulating emotion during a significant emotional experience. People say it gets better as more time passes. The body and the mind want to oversimplify the fact that grief is a multidimensional component.

Death is everywhere, it’s a huge part of our world, it’s the grieving and the surface part of emotion that is a huge part of our thing. The idea of going over and over why something happened is that magical thinking. It’s one of those things that we want to feel that we have control over, but we don’t. Tuesday doesn’t care about Monday. Nothing is fair.

SH: Ugh, another friend of mine lost both her father and her sister very suddenly, and it was like, “Seriously? Hasn’t she gone through enough?”

PS: Yeah, there’s no fairness about it at all. And people will say “Just be strong,” because people think being strong means that you don’t show your emotion. But then the long term effect is that you’ve taught yourself that emotion is weak, and it disrupts your ability to connect with another person. You see children try to cope with this and they say things like “I’m brave, I don’t cry,” and what kind of message is that? It removes one of the things that’s beautiful about being human. Grief allows us to mold and shape what our values are to come, what potential’s in the world, and how to treat them.

That’s one of the things that people say they get out of Comfort Zone. They’ll say “Now I know what it means to love someone that’s in your life, I’ll never let it happen again where someone walks away without an argument being resolved and without knowing that I care about them and appreciate them.”

In a lot of ways, grief pays it forward for a healthier emotional life in the future.

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Comfort Zone Camp has been around for 16 years, and it’s served more than 14,000 children and young adults from ages 5-25.

It’s also entirely free.

In Pete’s words, “We are as healthy as the community that surrounds us,” which means they rely on our donations! (Feel free to donate online or get involved). “We feel that grief creates enough barriers that we want to eliminate one of those barriers.”

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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