Bereaved can survive holidays by ‘bringing them back’

They are Japanese, Caucasian, Native Hawaiian, Filipino.

They are the Niis, the Germans, the Bandmanns and the Nuescas.

And they are feeling fresh grief at the holidays.

Death came knocking on the doors of all these families’ homes, and the homes of others, this month.

While the holidays won’t be the same without the loved ones who passed away, there are ways for surviving family members to survive the holidays, said Gina Kaulukukui, bereavement care and volunteer coordinator at Kaua’i Hospice.

First and foremost is taking care of yourself, she said.

“Self-care is really important, and (knowing) that it’s OK for newly-bereaved (people) to be good to yourself,” and that it’s also OK to cut back on big holiday celebrations, she said.

If participating in a Christmas Day celebration is going to be too painful, switch to a smaller celebration on Christmas Eve (today, Saturday, Dec. 24), she suggested.

“It’s natural to back away instead of embracing it,” Kaulukukui said of holiday celebrating while grieving, while also reminding surviving family members and friends that “We cope by bringing them (deceased family members and friends) back into the present.”

Kaulukukui used some examples from her own life to illustrate how, through annual purchase or making of Christmas ornaments, setting places for the deceased loved ones at the holiday-meal table, talking about what people remember most and miss most about deceased loved ones, memories of the deceased loved ones can and must be kept alive.

One way she keeps her grandmother’s memory alive is through a cookie recipe she found after her grandmother passed away. Her grandmother baked the cookies each year when she was alive, but wouldn’t part with the recipe, she said.

Each year, she gathers the ingredients necessary to bake the cookies, tossing away the previous year’s ingredients that sat unmixed for a year. “It’s the story about the cookies that lives on,” and, in real ways, fond memories of her grandmother, she explained.

“It’s the memories we have that keep them very much alive,” and the holidays are about family gatherings and remembering, Kaulukukui said.

It’s also important to remember that the anticipation of the holiday is usually much worse than the holiday itself, and that there are no wrong ways to cope.

“We’re so rich, and we’re so diverse,” with cultures within cultures. “Make the space to do it,” she said of keeping the deceased person alive in the hearts and minds of the living.

Creative thinking helps, whether that means making ornaments with sand to remember a man who loved fishing, renaming the Christmas tree in honor of a deceased loved one (the Kelly tree, for example) and decorating that tree in the deceased loved one’s favorite color, or having children make Christmas cards for the deceased loved one, she continued.

“This is what’s really important: talk to each other. What do they miss, remember most” about the deceased loved one? Kaulukukui asked.

It’s also important to know personal limitations brought on by grief, and to let friends and loved ones know specifically whether or not they want discussions to take place about the deceased loved one, whether or not the grieving people can handle the responsibility of the family dinner, holiday parties and other Yuletide traditions, and other considerations, she continued.

Some people find their greatest comfort and their best way of acknowledging the loss by doing something for others, added Kaulukukui.

“Do something for someone else,” such as donate to a local charity, “adopt” a needy individual or members of a family for the holidays, or remember a deceased animal lover by donating time at the Kauai Humane Society, for example, she said.

Above all, again, take care of yourself first, and understand, “I will be OK,” said Kaulukukui.


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