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Several lighted candles

Light a candle in memory of a loved one this holiday season.

Dealing with loss during the holidays

By Martha Erickson

From eNews, December 20, 2007

The holiday season is filled with images of happy families gathered around the fireplace, singing songs and making wonderful memories together. For most families it is hard to measure up to that perfect image; and for families who have experienced a recent loss, especially one as profound as the death of a family member, the gap between the "greeting card" image and reality can be huge.

Although each family's experience is unique, there are some common issues that often come up around holidays following a loss. Many families find that the familiar holiday rituals evoke strong memories that, as one parent told me, "peel away the scab" of the loss. Feeling so vulnerable themselves, family members sometimes become protective of each other--dancing around the feelings, uncertain of how to behave for fear of triggering a flood of emotion.

Some family members find that when they do begin to have fun--perhaps for a moment almost forgetting the lost loved one--they suddenly feel guilty for enjoying themselves. Another common response is to idealize the deceased family member, remembering only how wonderful he or she was and forgetting the loved one's human faults. Although this is a natural reaction, surviving family members may feel left out or less important than the one who died. This is especially difficult for surviving siblings when a child dies.

Here are some steps you can take to help cope and even find some joy in the holiday season:

Finally, keep up your own strength (remember to rest and eat) and seek or accept extra support from friends.

And, if you haven't already done so, this would be a good time to seek out a peer support group, especially if you're a parent who has lost a child--many communities have chapters of Compassionate Friends listed in the phone book. (If not, contact your clergy or a community mental health center for a recommendation.)

Martha Erickson is senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs for Infant and Toddler Training in the Center for Early Education and Development.