Ways To Handle Grief During The Holidays

What to do when seasonal celebrations clash with sorrow over loss

For the Light The Night remembrance ceremony, staff members from the University Development team created a poster honoring their late colleague, Tamara Overcash. Overcash is pictured here with her daughter, Carter Lane Overcash. Photo courtesy of Vera Lu

Tears turned to smiles and warm hugs after Tamara Overcash's name was read aloud during a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society ceremony.

More than a dozen colleagues from University Development participated in the ceremony and 1.5 -mile walk to honor their colleague Overcash, 36, who passed away in August from leukemia.

"The Light The Night walk was a turning point for me in how I handled my grief," said Vera Luck, a program coordinator at University Development. "I feel more at peace now. I know Tamara's spirit will not be forgotten."

Finding a way to remember someone who has passed away is one of several suggestions Duke experts offer for Duke staff and faculty working through grief during the holiday season, which can heighten feelings of loss, sadness and sorrow.

"A grieving person may either mask the pain of loss or avoid circumstances in which they will encounter pressure to be upbeat and positive," said William Holloman, manager of Duke Hospice Bereavement Services. "Recognizing and accepting a lack of energy and investment in holiday cheer can help in the creation of new traditions and healing through remembering."

Holloman and others at Duke offer the following tips for handling grief - your own or someone else's - during this holiday season:

Examine holiday expectations. Penny Sanders, a bereavement counselor with Duke Hospice Bereavement Services, said that hospice workers encourage those grieving to examine expectations for the holidays. Some may want to avoid family traditions but others may want to add a ritual, such as lighting a candle in memory of a loved one at a family dinner, which brings comfort. "We advise people to choose activities that are truly meaningful and give comfort, rather than stress," Sanders said.

Talk about the loss. People often avoid speaking about a loss for fear they will bring up a painful memory. "But the griever is already acutely aware of those memories, particularly when every holiday TV commercial seems to focus on the family," said Carol Retsch-Bogart, counselor with Duke's Personal Assistance Service. "Acknowledging and sharing the grief can make it lighter." Speaking of a loss at work can be helpful, but experts caution against offering cliches such as "just keep busy," or "time heals all wounds." Instead, they suggest simple statements such as "I can't imagine how difficult this is for you."

Practice patience. Joanna Parker, coordinator for Duke Hospital's Bereavement Services, encourages community members to practice empathy and understand that those who have lost a loved one or colleague may feel out of sync with holiday cheer. "Feel free to invite them to a holiday event but be understanding if they decide to sit this one out," she said.

Find ways to remember. Staff from University Development, led by Luck and Jennifer Salamh, participated in the Light The Night Walk in November and raised $6,500 for blood cancer research. Annual memorial events such as the Light The Night walk can be powerful because they offer a structured way to remember someone after the initial numbness of grief has passed, experts said. University Development staff members, many of whom have stayed connected with Overcash's family members, will participate in the Light The Night Walk in 2012 in her honor. Overcash, the director of Prospect Research, Management and Analytics for University Development, had been at Duke since Nov. 2006, and was a 2010 Presidential Award winner.

"Tamara's death has had a huge impact emotionally on many of us," Luck said. "We won't forget her."