When the holidays are tinged with grief

The first Christmas after her husband’s death was the hardest for Marjorie Fenwick.

The Victoria woman’s husband, Wayne, died Oct. 24, 2006, after a brief battle with cancer, leaving her and two grown sons and their families.

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Wayne’s absence during that first holiday season after his death was very painful for Fenwick.

“That first Christmas was tough,” she said.

But then, Fenwick’s youngest son happened to be going on a Caribbean vacation with his wife and family in early January. He approached his mother and said he wanted her to come along. Fenwick said her first instinct was to say no.

“But he said, ‘No, Mom, you have to come,’ ” Fenwick said. “So I went and my two sons paid and it was just like it was meant to be.”

During the trip, Fenwick remembered waking up one morning sensing her husband was in bed next to her, with his arm around her.

In the years since, when she decorates for Christmas she always remembers how Wayne would complain while putting up the lights. But Fenwick, who would get scared while he was up on a ladder, now decorates only the bottom half of the house.

“I don’t get up on the ladder but I sure do a number on the lower part of the house,” said Fenwick, 72. “I’ve always loved Christmas and I know Wayne would want me to decorate and I know he would be proud of me.”

For people who have only recently lost a loved one, Christmas can be a very painful time. Instead of being the happiest time of the year, it’s an occasion that can be filled with painful reminders of someone’s absence.

Victoria counsellor Triana Avis, who lists grief and loss as a special area of her practice, said the Christmas holidays can bring a kind of social pressure on people to be happy and joyful. But in reality they may not be emotionally equipped to be filled with joy.

“This time of year can be very difficult for many, many people,” Avis said.

She said grief is complicated, involving emotions such as sadness, anger and acceptance, and they can swing back and forth. A person who believes they have finally learned to accept a loss can suddenly revert to anger or sadness. All the feelings are valid, but they are also very individual.

“Everybody is different,” Avis said. “There really is no right or wrong way to grieve.”

For example, a trip out of town shortly after Christmas, such as the one Fenwick took to the Caribbean, can be very therapeutic. It can help remove a person from familiar surroundings and give them something new to focus upon. Others, however, might take enormous comfort from remaining with surroundings that are familiar.

Fenwick also left herself open and sensitive to any feelings the grieving process might bring.

“It’s important for people to allow those emotions to come and go,” Avis said. “It can be like waves moving in and out. It’s important to allow that to happen and not resist those emotions. But at the same time, don’t let yourself get stuck in them.”

Fenwick also started new Christmas traditions.

“It’s very important to not be afraid to start new rituals when your life changes in a significant way,” Avis said. “Any kind of new chapter in your life calls for new rituals.”

To help people deal with grief, especially at a time like Christmas, she said she works to help people understand they are not alone. A person feeling grief can reach out to others in the same circumstances.

“I try to encourage people to look outside of themselves, to find someone they can do something thoughtful for to make their suffering ease up a little,” Avis said. “There is likely someone in your own neighbourhood who needs help and maybe having a harder time of it.”

Avis also said Victoria’s climate and geography at this time of year make it very grey, which is depressing for some. But it’s also blessed with an early spring.

“We will see signs of new life as early as January or February,” she said. “Plum trees on View Street will bloom and crocuses will poke through the ground.

“And Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year and then the days start to get longer,” Avis said. “That’s a beautiful thing, both literally and figuratively, the return of light, rebirth, renewal, new hope and new beginnings.

“That’s for everyone, whether you like Christmas or hate it. It’s important to not feel pressured into feeling they’ve got to make a big production out of Christmas, especially if it’s only going to make you feel worse.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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