This time of year brings new faces to the weekly bereavement support groups at Gulfside Regional Hospice and Hernando-Pasco Hospice. Both schedule extra meetings as the turkeys and candy canes appear on grocery store shelves.
"People review their lives during the holidays. Whenever you review your life, you're going to review your losses," said Sonia Quinones, bereavement services director at Gulfside.
And it doesn't help that every time you turn on your TV, there's a commercial featuring a happy family gathered at the table.
"You can't avoid it in any way," said Laura Finch, bereavement services manager at HPH.
Losing a loved one is hard, and that loss can feel even greater during the holidays. Finch and Quinones recently spoke to the Times about grief and offered the following tips on how to cope during the holiday season.
Feelings are okay
"Many people who are grieving believe they are not normal," Finch said. "We try to teach people they're really normal in an abnormal situation."
Don't compare yourself to others who have also suffered a recent loss. Everyone is allowed to cope differently.
"Grief through the holidays, or anytime, is so individual," Finch said. "What works for one may not work for another."
Finch and Quinones stressed that sadness is normal after the loss of a loved one, including a pet. It's important to allow yourself to grieve the loss.
"When someone tells us a funny joke, we never think, 'I shouldn't laugh so hard.' But when something tragic happens, we question why we're crying," Finch said. "Both are appropriate responses to the situation."
Go easy on yourself
Don't feel that you have to keep up the traditions of food, gifts, decorations and extravagant family newsletters.
Instead, find a compromise that balances what you and your family normally do with what you're physically and emotionally capable of after a loss.
If you can't cook an entire meal, suggest a potluck, Finch recommended.
"You don't have to go in all or nothing," she said.
Make plans early so you're not alone on the days important to you.
"Don't let the holidays sneak up on you," Quinones said. "Have a plan that works for you."
And have a plan B, Finch recommended.
If you attend a religious service, sit near the back in case the music or talk gets to you and you can't listen any longer.
Don't avoid holiday parties, just let the hosts know you may want to leave early.
Anything else to make the holidays easier on yourself?
"Try to avoid emotionally draining people," Finch said.
'Old' grief is okay
After several months, or years, your friends have stopped sending condolence cards and asking how you feel. Sadly, this could be the time you need them most.
"A lot of times people think the first set of holidays after a loss are the most difficult," Finch said. "Sometimes we see it's the second set."
Quinones once received a call from a woman who was having a hard time coping with the loss of her mother. The woman was embarrassed because her mother had been gone for 20 years.
"You grieve your losses for a long time; they don't go away," Quinones said.
Recognize the dead
Quinones knows families who decorate pictures of lost loved ones. Some set up an envelope or stocking so friends and family can "send" the deceased messages.
"That helps them enjoy the holidays and also honor the loved one who has passed," she said. "It lessens the guilt they may feel during the holidays."
She stressed that the holidays, and all times of the year, should be celebrated.
"Life is beautiful," Quinones said. "It's here to be enjoyed."
Kids grieve, too
"Children need to have as normal a holiday as possible," Quinones said.
But "normal" doesn't have to mean all the usual bells and whistles. Ask your kids which family traditions are special to them.
"I notice kids don't care about a lot of things that adults do," Finch said.
The holiday meal may not be as important to children as the lights and decorations. She's known of parents who couldn't handle having a tree, so they let the children decorate their rooms with colored lights. The main entree for that special family meal: pizza.
Kids may appear to alternate between grieving and returning to their usual routine of play, Quinones said.
"There are moments when the grief comes up again and they need to share it," she said.
And don't be surprised if kids grieve a loss from years ago.
"Children come back to their loss many times during their development," Quinones said. "They don't have that history of life; everything is new."
Help others, yourself
Finch knows families who buy presents for needy children after their own children have died.
Quinones recommends you reach out to others who may also be hurting during the holidays. This gives you a support group, and company.
Or you could always choose to spend the holidays volunteering at the soup kitchen or homeless shelter, she said. "Sometimes we heal ourselves in giving."
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.