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Holiday help: How to cope, grieve and experience the holidays after loss

By Austin Jackson | Published Saturday, December 1, 2018
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Carrying On

CARRYING ON – Beverly Ross of Wise County Christian Counseling is using her personal grief testimony to reach others. In September, she opened up the Jenny’s Hope Grief Center inside the Wise County Christian Counseling office. Her daughter Jenny died suddenly in 2010. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The scars aren’t fresh, but like clockwork – as October turns into November and December – waves of pain come washing back for Beverly Ross.

It’s been 106 months since Ross said goodbye to her daughter, Jenny Laine Bizaillion, who died suddenly in 2010.

Ross described her grief for her daughter like a figurative brick she carries around in her pocket. The brick can feel light, heavy and sharp at times, but is always there.

FINDING A WAY – Beverly Ross of Wise County Christian Counseling often lights a candle at her home during the Holidays when family and friends are around. It’s a way to let people around her know that her daughter Jenny, who passed away in 2010, is on her mind and her heart. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

On Nov. 1, 2010, the brick seemed indomitable. Like a brick wall, and she just wanted to stop.

“When the calendar rolled to November, I was not prepared for the devastation,” Ross said. “This feeling of ‘here we go.’ I just remember thinking I’m going to walk this road without her and I don’t want to.”

Ross is an expert in grief.

The director of Wise County Christian Counseling has been trained by tragedy, practice and school. She recently opened the county’s first grief center, Jenny’s Hope, in September.

Even she has to prepare herself for the holidays and the inevitable emotions that will come along with them. She doesn’t avoid the feelings though. She processes them and gets through it.

The holidays also serve as a break from the day-to-day routines that busy our minds. Holidays and the Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions often serve as a stark reminder of a loved one’s absence, Ross said.

“With the holidays, It doesn’t even have to be death,” Ross said. “It could be struggles with family members. You’re with people you may not normally chose to hang out with. Then there’s the big ‘should’ list. I should do this, this and this. In America we are champions of the comparisons. Most parties, most gifts under the tree. The places where we shop. And to go into that with grief, which makes life so hard. And knowing that nothing is going to be the same or feel the same. The feelings are coming whether you want them or not.

“Grief compounds any issue you ever thought you had. You’re robbed of energy. All your energy is going into taking the next breath,” she added. “As a counselor, I knew a lot of strategy. I taught grief workshops, but after Jenny died I walked out of the hospital and I had no idea it felt like this. It was like it snowballed. One big ball of grief.

Instead of being overwhelmed, Ross developed a strategy – one she lives by and teaches to this day.

“To walk this road, for me, I split it into components,” Ross said.

Ross has outlined four grief coping strategy components – physical, emotional, relational and spiritual – to get through the holidays.

The first step, Ross said, is remembering to breathe. Just breathe.

She said you have to let your body heal before you can work on the other components to get through the holiday madness.

“One of the things that makes anxiety difficult is we don’t take deep breaths when we’re anxious. So there is a Navy Seal approach to breathing,” Ross said. “The only people more anxious than the Seals might be grievers. Navy Seals practice box breathing. It’s controlled intentional breath. Purposeful breathing. Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and breathe out for four seconds.”

In addition to deep, purposeful breaths, Ross also recommends rest, exercise, letting yourself cry, sigh and eat.

Ross said there are toxins in tears related to grief that aren’t present in normal tears.

“Grievers dehydrate, so we have to drink more water,” she said. “Give yourself permission to shed tears. We know that tears of grief contain a different chemistry. They contain toxins, poisons that we have to shed.”

The next step is working on dealing with emotions and dealing with the memories.

One way, Ross advised, is to give yourself permission to remember.

During the holidays at her home, Ross will light a candle when she’s actively grieving Jenny. Sometimes she will tell her family, and sometimes she keeps it to herself. But the act of acknowledging it is helpful, Ross said.

Another key during the holidays is not trying to avoid the holidays and the memories, but instead to embrace them.

Ross said each family and situation is different, but it can be helpful to reflect on the past.

“At Christmas we always have times when we tell stories. Not perfect stories, just real stories and real memories,” Ross said. “Come up with how you want to remember. For us, we make some recipes of Jenny’s that we make every time we’re together. Jenny’s favorite food. It’s called burn your cheese dip. Not because it’s spicy but because she could never wait for it to cool off. Those are just fun little stories we do to remember her by.”

Ross said embracing those memories are important and it can be done with ornaments, pictures, stories or just designating an empty space. Whether it be an empty chair at the table or in the living room that acknowledges that their loved one isn’t physically here, but their memories and spirit are.

Additionally, Ross said emotional strength is overrated.

She said true strength is giving yourself permission to be vulnerable, to be where you are and be at peace with it.

“It’s OK to be sad,” she said. “It’s OK to cry.”

Next, Ross said to focus on the relational, and know it’s OK to ask for help. Whether that be a friend, a family member someone at the church or a counselor, just find someone who will listen, she said.

“You alone can do your grief work, but you don’t have to do it alone,” Ross said. “Ask another for help. Make the phone call.”

To get through the holidays, Ross said she focused on the spiritual aspect.

She felt spiritually bankrupt and lost after the loss of Jenny, but soon she found direction by getting back to the basics and clinging to what she knew.

“Death created a spiritual earthquake, and left me sifting through the rubble to find the remnants of my faith,” Ross said. “I began through the holidays to cling to what I know is truth. There’s a lot of spiritual platitudes that are spoken at death – clich s that I think make it hard for grievers. You have to bear in hard to what you know is truth. My list of things I know without a doubt is short. For me it’s three things. I believe that God is God. I believe that I will see His face, and I believe I have a close circle of family and friends that will journey beside me when I get there.”

Ross has used these steps for the past seven Christmases and will do so again entering her eighth.

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