Christmas and Helpful Communication In Times of Loss

©Jane A. Simington PhD.

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December is upon us and during this month, many will spend time with loved ones for whom Christmas does not bring joy but instead exaggerates their grief responses. While we tend to associate grief with the death of a loved one, there are actually four major types of losses that those in our workplaces and personal lives may be grieving. These are: the loss of meaningful relationships and include losses resulting from death, separation, divorce, abortion, or of children taken into foster care. Losses of meaningful objects are the second major category and include the losses of a home or treasured objects; and can result from a house fire or relocation such as what happens when someone enters a long-term care facility and can take only one box and one suitcase of possessions. A loss of context is the third major type of losses and includes losses of routine and the familiar; these losses can also include losses of goals and dreams and a loss of a sense of one’s past, such as happens when a parent dies, or a loss of a sense of one’s future, as what happens when a child dies. The fourth major category is losses of parts of the self. These losses include sensory losses, loss of a body part, a loss of identity, or a loss of a sense of self, self-worth, or dignity. These major categories of losses are not mutually exclusive, for many who experience a significant loss in one category will subsequently experience losses in another or even in all the other categories.

Many who desire to be helpful, struggle with the best ways to communicate with a griever, especially with those who are in the early stages of grief, or with those who are experiencing a renewed rawness of their grief and of all the memories of what they no longer have and will never again have. A renewed rawness of grief is often triggered by an anniversary reaction, such as what happens at Christmas time. The following points on helpful ways to communicate and not-communicate with a griever can allow a caring person to become one who is capable of knowledgeable caring:

  • Create opportunities that allow the griever to speak about the losses or about the person who has died, since a great fear for grievers is that their loved one will too soon be forgotten. Relating any positive life events and memories of your experiences with the griever or of their loved one who has died can boost the griever’s self-worth and help them to know that their loved one or their contributions are not forgotten.
  • Be comfortable with tears for they are a normal part of grief and can help grieving persons release deeply felt emotional and soul pain. It is also okay to shed a tear as you listen to the griever’s tear-filled stories. Remember however, that crying and weeping are not the same things. When we have a tear in our eye, grievers can sense our empathy. When we weep however, we have altered the relationship for we are no longer able to support the griever for something about what they have said or done has triggered unresolved feelings within us and the griever may end up comforting the one who should be providing the comfort, but is no longer capable of doing so.
  • Remain focused on the griever and on the griever’s experiences. Many people have a difficult time remaining “other-focused.” The moment a griever attempts to describe a portion of their grief experience, a listener that is unable to be other-focused for more than a few moments, will piggy-back on the griever’s story and interject into the conversation, a life narrative of their own grief. To do so may make the griever feel that the listener does not hear the significance of, nor really care about, the griever or about what the griever is attempting to communicate.
  • Allow the griever to describe their beliefs about their life circumstances rather than offering “false reassurance.” False reassurance is delivered in expressions such as: “It was for the best.” “It was God’s will.” “Something good will come from this.” While these phrases may seem comforting, they are considered by grievers as the least helpful words spoken to them. Expressions such as these come from the speaker’s belief system and may not match the beliefs of the griever. False reassurance has been shown to increase anger at God as well as at the conveyor of such expressions, and thus interferes with the therapeutic relationship.
  • Offer the griever undivided attention. A griever’s life and sense of self have been destroyed. Grievers deserve the full attention of their listeners. To give full attention that conveys care, support and empathy, turn your entire body toward the person, make direct eye contact and drop everything else you are doing as the grieving person is speaking. My youngest daughter taught me the power of facing the speaker and making eye contact while listening. One afternoon, while I was busy at the stove and she was excitedly relating her kindergarten day’s events, she stopped mid-sentence to retort. ”Mom you are not listening!“  “Oh yes I am,” I replied, and repeated some of the things she had said. “But,” she cried! “You’re not listening with your eyes.” My child’s honest expression made me remember that the eyes truly are the windows of the soul and to make eye contact when someone is attempting to share deeply with me communicates that I am emotionally and soulfully present to them.
  • Keeping our eyes connected also keeps our eyes and hands off technology devices, such as phones or iPads. Focusing on devices when another is relating their feelings indicates in numerous nonverbal ways that we are more interested in what we are doing on the devices than we are with the person who at this moment needs our undivided attention.
  • Encourage the griever to create a nonverbal signal that communicates when they are becoming overwhelmed in a situation where they may not be able to tell you this in words. The nonverbal message can be anything from pulling on their left ear lobe to rubbing their right knee. Once the nonverbal communication strategy is established, it will then be an indication for you to find a way to excuse the griever from a situation in which they are becoming physically and/or emotionally exhausted.

Christmas is for many, a time of family gatherings. Contained within such gatherings are often reflections of the joys and family gatherings of past Christmases. These reflections, the season itself and all it contains, including the expectations of what it should contain, can add to the emotional emptiness felt by grievers. Many of us will, over the holidays, spend time with one or more persons who are experiencing grief. While we may not be able to make their lives joyful, we each can communicate in ways that convey care and support, knowing that feeling cared about is a first step in regaining a sense of hope that may one day lead to inner peace, the true gift of a joyous Christmas.

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