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Posted: December 11, 2008

Spousal Caregiving

Healing During the Holidays

Bill Andrew

 The advent of the holiday season offers not only an opportunity to reflect on the year that’s drawing to a close, but also to look inwardly at our losses and our gains of the previous 12 months – in a sense, giving ourselves a chance to “heal” and prepare for what’s yet ahead. 

I’ve started to take a walk down this path in previous columns in which I discussed "helping yourself heal when your spouse dies," "the process of grieving: what every griever should know," and most recently "caregiver tips for relieving holiday stress." All of these columns were based on materials by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a noted author, educator, and practicing clinical thantologist (that’s the study of death and dying).  Dr. Wolfelt is the director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition, and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School.  As a leading authority in the field of thanatology, Dr. Wolfelt is known internationally for his outstanding work in the areas of adult and childhood grief. 

As I reflected on how to best follow up on these columns -- especially as we enter the holiday season, it struck me that this will be the first Christmas in 57 years that Carol will not be at my side for the festivities and with family.  Of course, she is in a better place now with God and the Holy Family.  But how will I be able to deal with that fact of being alone at Christmas?  And once again, Dr. Wolfelt came to the rescue with his suggestions. Here they are: 

·         You are not alone.  The Christmas holidays are often difficult for anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one.  Rather than being times of family togetherness, sharing, and thanksgiving, holidays can often bring feelings of sadness, loss, and emptiness.

·         Love does not end with death.  Since love does not end with death, holidays may result in a renewed sense of personal grief -- a feeling of loss unlike that experienced in the routine of daily living.  Society encourages you to join in the holiday spirit, but all around you are the sounds, sights, and smells that trigger memories of your loved one who has died.  No simple guidelines exist that will take away the hurt you are feeling.  It is hoped that the following suggestions will help survivors better cope with their grief during this joyful, yet painful, time of the year.  Remember that by being tolerant and compassionate with yourself, you will continue to heal in your personal grief experience.

·         Talk about your grief.  During the holidays, do not be afraid to express your feelings of grief.  Ignoring your grief will not make the pain go away; talking about it openly often makes you feel better.  Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging you.  They will help make you feel understood.

·         Be tolerant of your physical and psychological limits.  Feelings of loss will probably leave you fatigued.  Your low energy level may naturally slow you down.  Respect what your body and mind are telling you.  And lower your own expectations about being at your peak during the holidays.

·         Eliminate unnecessary stress.  You may already feel stressed, so don't overextend yourself.  Avoid isolating yourself, but be sure to recognize the need to have special time for yourself.  Realize that merely "keeping busy" will not distract you from your grief but may actually increase stress and postpone the need to talk out thoughts and feelings related to your grief.

·         Be with supportive, comforting people.  Identify those friends and relatives who understand that the Christmas holidays can increase your sense of loss and who will allow you to talk openly about your feelings.  Find those people who encourage you to be yourself and accept your feelings, both happy and sad.

·         Mention the name of the person who has died.  Include the person's name in your Christmas holiday conversations.  If you are able to talk candidly, other people are more likely to recognize your need to remember that special person who was an important part of your life.

·         Do what is right for you during the Christmas holidays.  Well-meaning family and friends often try to prescribe what is good for you during the Christmas holidays.  Instead of going along with their plans, focus on what you want to do.  Discuss your wishes with a caring, trusted friend.  Talking about these wishes will help you to clarify what it is you want to do.  As you become aware of your needs, share them with your family and friends.

·         Plan ahead for family gatherings.  Decide which family traditions you want to continue and which new ones you would like to start following the death of your loved one.  Structure your holiday time.  This will help you to anticipate activities rather than just reacting to whatever happens.  Getting caught off guard can create feelings of panic, fear, and anxiety during a time of the year when your feelings of grief are already heightened.  As you make your plans, however, leave room to change them if you feel it is appropriate.

·         Embrace your treasure of memories.  Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of a loved one.  And the holidays always make you think about times past.  Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends.  Keep in mind that memories are tinged with both happiness and sadness.  If your memories bring laughter, smile.  If your memories bring sadness, then it is okay to cry.  Memories that were made in love, no one can ever take them away from you. 

·         Renew your resources for living.  Spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of your life.  The death of a loved one creates opportunities for taking inventory of your life -- past, present, and future.  The combination of the holidays and loss of a loved one naturally results in looking inward and assessing your individual situation.  Make the best use of this time to define the positive things in life that surround you, including your family and friends.

·         Express your faith.  During the holidays, you may find a renewed sense of faith or possibly discover a new set of beliefs.  Associate with people who understand and respect your need to talk about these beliefs.  If your faith is important, you may want to attend Christmas services or other special religious ceremonies.

·         As you approach the holidays, remember that grief is both a necessity and a privilege.  It comes as a result of giving love and receiving love.  Do not let anyone take your grief away from you.  Love yourself!  Be patient with yourself!  And allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people.

In summary, while extending my best wishes to you and your family during this holiday season, keep this time of year as a reminder of all the things that you shared with your loved one who has died.  The "remembering" is a critical part of the grieving and healing process. 

I hope that you will find these suggestions helpful as you travel your spousal caregiver journey during this holiday season.  Please e-mail me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com with your comments and/or reactions.  I will include them in a future column with your permission.  Please provide your full name and address.  In the column, I will only use your first name and the initial of your last name as well as your city and state.  Thank you. 

WORDS TO CARE BY . . . 

"For God so loved the world,

that He gave His only begotten Son. . ." 

John 3:16 (NAB)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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