Remember deceased loved ones by writing them a message and placing it on one of Hospice Hawaii's memorial trees.

Holiday grief
can’t be ignored

Helen Takeuchi understands holiday pressure well. While she says she has always been the "Scrooge" in her family, she could depend on her husband to perform every Christmas duty. "He was the jolly Santa, or in his case, Hanukkah Harry," she said.

But when Harry died about three years ago, she had to take his lead. "The holidays are hard enough even if you haven't lost someone," she said.

Confronting death is never an easy task. When it comes during the holiday season, the emotional impact can seem doubly devastating because it doesn't stop the onslaught of social obligations and the sight of others continuing on their merry path. The usual joyous celebrations, filled with family traditions, favorite foods and activities may serve as reminders of loss.

The old grief theory was to "get over it, find closure and move on with your life," said Clarence Liu, chaplain and director of patient and family services at Hospice Hawaii. But modern theory suggests that we never outgrow it or close it. Grief comes in waves. And that is normal and healthy. But, he said, there are ways to avoid letting grief destroy the holiday season. Three main components that can help are choice, communication and compromise, Liu added.

In coming to terms with her loss, Takeuchi said she learned "what it meant to celebrate the holidays."

"The theme of Hanukkah is freedom. It made me realize that it is important to be giving and generous throughout the year."

She no longer judges her barometer of giving in the month of December. "I don't fret if I can't get people something. And I forgave myself for not being able to give my daughter everything her heart desired."

"YOU DON'T have to be at the effect of the holidays," Liu explained. People should reflect on their own needs. "Everyone expects us to go to dinners, but some people may not feel up to it. They need things to be more private."

It is perfectly fine to decline invitations, he said. Communication is also vital, added Liu. It's important to tell your family how you feel so that the entire family can decide whether they want to take an alternative approach the holidays.

And, this is where compromise comes into play. Liu said he knows a family that wanted to transform their Christmas tree into a memorial tree using photographs of their father.

"Some of the kids didn't feel comfortable about it. So, they decorated their main tree with normal and regular decorations and made a smaller memorial tree," he said.

The main thing -- to find a way of remembering lost loved ones during the holiday season -- is to "to maintain a connection with the person who is no longer in the physical world," he said.

A memorial tree fulfills a need for outward expression. Roadside graves are another example, offering a means for the community and family to express grief.

"We saw it with Princess Di where people left flowers and letters and with 9/11," Liu said. "There is something in us -- a need to express a connection with someone who is no longer there. These are very healthy ways to acknowledge a person's death."

He adds that crafts, journals and photo albums can also be used to express one's feelings.

"Being able to laugh and cry at the same time is a sign of healthy grieving. There will be definite ups and downs," Liu said.

LIU APPRECIATES when people say, "I talk to mom a lot" or have conversations with those who have died. By celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, it ritualizes this person's life. Liu knows of one family who, after losing a child, took their Thanksgiving dinner to the cemetery and had a wonderful time. "I encourage people to go to the cemetery," said Liu. "It provides a link to the person who died."

Anna Cottrell makes regular visits to the cemetery. Her mother died a few years ago, but the frequent visits provide a sense of closeness, especially during the holidays.

"My brother and I try to go together during Christmas. We bring flowers to the grave, usually a poinsettia plant or a small tree. We do things quietly," she said.

Miroslava Foglesong celebrates in a more outwardly fashion. Her younger sister was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. "I always have her picture up," she said.

Sometimes, Foglesong opens a Bible and lights a candle. "She really believed in God and was very religious," she said. The Bible symbolizes her faith and is meant to keep her safe. "They say they come to visit us. We want to show her that things are still the same. The candle is used for light to show the way to heaven," she added.

Finding others who have endured similar experiences can also be comforting. Hospice Hawaii support groups helped Takeuchi during her initial grieving.

"It gave me a safe place to go," she said. "They have activities to help guide you -- the rituals were pretty important.

"We always get together with calabash cousins and light the menorah. It's comforting to feel my husband's presence."

At Thanksgiving, as she ate favorite family foods, she was reminded of him. "My mom was always happy to see her son-in-law relish her Japanese food," she said. "I like to continue what we had done as a family. It is powerful to be surrounded by people who loved the person you lost."

Moments happen when you least expect it -- you get sad or angry. People think they are done grieving or are healed. It is not a linear progression, there are ups and downs. It helps to know this is normal," she said.

At the end of each year, Takeuchi reflects on her accomplishments and is grateful for the joy in her life. "I finally forgave myself for missing him so much."

The public is invited to write a personal message to their deceased loved ones on a paper dove ornament and place it on one of Hospice Hawaii's decorated memorial trees. Trees are located at Borders Ward and Waikele locations, and the following Satellite City Halls: Ala Moana, Hawaii Kai, Kailua, Kalihi, Kapolei, Pearlridge, Wahiawa and Windward Mall. Call 924-9255 for more information.

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