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  • Grief and the Holidays

    Written By Heather Mullaly, M.S.Ed, Volunteer Resident Counselor

                    This is the time of year when we typically get together with friends and family and celebrate the holidays. We are told that this is supposed to be a festive time with laughter and cheer. So what happens when you are grieving the loss of a loved one during the “most wonderful time of the year”? Grief can be something that is not easy for us to deal with in general and it can be especially difficult to cope with during this time. Here are some things that can make grieving during the holidays a little easier.

                    Plan for the Holidays: Take the time to think about the holiday before it arrives. Most families follow the same traditions or routines year after year which causes us to “autopilot” the holidays. A loss means that things will change. Think about what will change this year ahead of time: someone different may need to host the holiday; everyone’s favorite dish may need to be made by someone else or not at all; a special tradition may need to be modified. Discuss the holiday plans with your family so that everyone is on the same page.

                    Be realistic with yourself: Do not try to do too much or feel pressured into creating the “perfect” holiday. It is okay if you need to scale things back and not do as much as you usually do every year. Let other people help with the planning, cooking, decorating, or whatever else. There is also nothing wrong with taking the year off from celebrating the holiday if you find that you are really not feeling up to it.

                    Express your feelings and know when to take a break: If you feel like crying, then go ahead and cry. If you feel angry, then punch a pillow. There are many types of feelings that can be associated with grief and it is normal and good to allow yourself to experience them even if they are unpleasant. You have a right to express those feelings; you do not have to suppress or hide them. At the same time, know when you need to take a break from those feelings. Sometimes distracting yourself by doing “busy work”, watching a funny movie, or having coffee with a friend can be a good thing.

                    Take care of yourself: Make sure that you are eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Schedule time to do things that you enjoy and that relax you. If you do these types of things on a regular basis it may be helpful to do a little extra during this time. It is also a good idea to be mindful of the amount of alcohol you consume. If you need to relax try going for a walk or taking a hot bath instead.

                    Spend time with others: While it is important to take time for yourself, it is also important to make sure that you do not isolate yourself. Spend time with friends and family; especially those that are closest to you. If you are unable to spend time with family or friends, consider donating some of your time to help others at places such as a local soup kitchen, charitable organization, or nursing home.

                    Remember your loved one: You can do something special during the holidays in memory of your loved one. Some ideas include: leaving an empty table setting for them, making a memorial ornament, lighting a candle, looking at old photos or videos, displaying their picture, writing your loved one a letter, or sharing fond memories or old stories with your family. You can create something new to do this one time or make it a new yearly tradition.

                    Don’t forget the children: Children have a right to grieve as well. Let them see you grieving; it helps normalize things for them and sets the example that expression of feelings is okay. Ask them how they are feeling and share how you are feeling with them. Also explain that sometimes we can become overwhelmed by feelings and that if they need to take a break to be by themselves for a little while then that is fine. Include them in the holiday planning and in remembering the loved one. You can even create special activities for them such as making a holiday card for their loved one (some people burn the card afterwards and watch the ashes “float up to reach” the loved one).

    Be aware of triggers: It is also important to know that the holidays can be a time where grief may be triggered. A song, a smell, a particular food, and a whole host of things in our environment can bring our grief to the surface. Take the time to accept it and then do something to get your mind off of it.

    Holiday time does not mean that you have to put aside your grief and pretend it is not there. Listen to yourself and do what feels right for you. There is no right or wrong way to grieve; at this time of the year or any other. Following the tips discussed here will not erase your grief but they can make things easier and show you that grief and the holidays can in fact coexist.

  • So what are you grateful for?

    I love this time of year. Not only is it the kick off to the holiday season, it is the month that hosts my birthday!  My Mom used to make such a big deal out of my birthday not only the day itself but the lead up to it as she planned for every detail.  My next door neighbor’s Mom would do the same and also throw me a birthday party every year.  While I loved the attention from these two wonderful  women, I also loved their thoughtfulness.  I was filled with gratitude for what they did for me.  Being a very observant little kid I was keenly aware of the sacrifice that came with my birthday celebration both in my household and my next door neighbor’s household. There were many other issues underlying why it would have been easier for both these women to not go to the trouble and expense of throwing me a party.  Knowing and observing this helped develop my feelings of gratitude.  I think it also was the beginning of my training to be a counselor. I always sought to understand why people do the things they do such as in this case  throwing a party for someone  when there were so many reasons to funnel resources in another needed direction.

    As a counselor I spend a lot of time teaching clients how to be more positive. It is a theoretical approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You teach clients a new positive mental script so they can turn from negative dysfunctional thinking which increases their issues such as depression and anxiety  to a more  positive healthy thinking pattern which conversely decreases these issues, at least theoretically. This is basically counselor talk for learning how to be grateful. Many of the clients we deal with have never learned how to look at life in a positive way. They have become victims of their own thoughts stuck in a downward spiral of negative self defeating self focus. They have never learned how to be grateful.

    I would like to say I have mastered this area in my life, but like everyone else I am a work in progress. We all can get stuck in this downward spiral of negativity. It can start from something insignificant. We feel we are having a bad day. We think it, then we speak it, and then we live it out in a self prophetic way.  We share it with others reliving it. We ruminate over it in our mind allowing it to keep us up at night. We get stuck in it.

    One day years ago I had a doctor’s appointment to get some stitches removed  at a very large hospital I had never been to before. As I stressed about finding it and then found a parking spot in the largest parking garage I had ever seen, my mood increasingly deteriorated to that of complete negativity. I was late. I didn’t know exactly where in the hospital this doctor was located. I was stressed. I was annoyed. I was in a bad mood. What a pain I thought. I have to walk all this way. Now I will be late. Then I will have to walk all the way back and I certainly did not wear the right shoes for all this walking. I probably will not be able to find my car and will wander around this smelly garage for hours . Why did I get sent here? Why couldn’t this doctor meet me at his office where I knew I was going instead of this hospital that I have never been to?  Why did I have to come here? What a waste of my time!   As I was getting sucked down that spiral of negativity by such an insignificant set of circumstances, a woman was wheeled by me in a wheelchair. She was quite pale. She had no eyebrows or eyelashes. She had a turban on and a bucket between her legs in case she needed to throw up. She must have just received chemo. She looked up at me and smiled. Why I am not sure as I must have had a scowl on my face or perhaps that is the very reason she did. I will never forget how kind she looked when she smiled at me.  It reminded me how ridiculous my thinking was. Her smile reminded me that my visit to the doctor was quite minor-a removal of stitches from my appendectomy that thankfully was caught in time and didn’t rupture. Suddenly I was struck by my own lack of gratitude. I wasn’t facing chemo. I wasn’t throwing up in a metal bucket.  I was being incredibly ungrateful,  complaining about being here for the removal of stitches which potentially may have saved my very life.

    At this time of year when the world attempts to focus on being grateful  let’s not just mouth the words while complaining that the turkey is dry or how early we are going to get up on Black Friday or worse Brown Thursday as this very special and  very-overlooked holiday gets whittled away each  year. Let’s not simply recite our gratitude because it is Thanksgiving.  Let’s truly think it, speak it and live it out. Let’s truly look at life as a gift and be thankful for it.  If a woman in a turban can do it so can we.

    Contributed by Kelle Watson, M.A. L.P.C., Director of Mental Health Counseling

  • What is Adoption? A Global Perspective

    This is the final of four blog posts for National Adoption Month – contributed by Rebekah Hall, M.S.W., Director of Youth & Family Services.  For more information on Catholic Charities’ Adoption Program, please visit: adoptionandpregnancycenter.org

    It is estimated that there are 153 million orphans in the world today, 153 MILLION. That is 153 million children who go to bed each night without knowing what it is like to be read to sleep by a parent or given a kiss goodnight. Some may say, “Okay, that is orphans across the world but what about here in the United States?” It is approximated that there are 397,000 children in the foster care system with 101,666 of those being available for adoption. Those are not kids in some country halfway around the world; these are kiddos who are right in our backyard.

    Caring for orphans is not a new concept. James addressed this in James 1:27; “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We are told to care for the orphans. Now, in saying that, I realize that not everyone out there is called or led to adopt and that is okay. There are so many other ways to help care for the orphan.

    1. Adopt – that is the “obvious” answer; you can adopt. Whether it be adopting internationally, an infant domestically, or adopting through the foster care system you can adopt.
    2. Financially support someone who is going to adopt – adoption is expensive. While you may not be led to adoption you may know people who are. Perhaps you can be the one to provide them with their application fee or home study fee. Maybe you are someone who travels a lot and accumulates frequent flyer miles. You could donate those to the friends flying overseas to bring home their little one.
    3. Service project or trip – you can go and serve. Go to Africa for a week and spend time in an orphanage loving on and playing with the children living there. Work on a collection of toys in your church for children in our local foster care system. All of these things can make a small difference in the life of a child.
    4. Be a support system for a family adoption – adopting a child, especially one who is older who has special needs, can be stressful for a family. You can help organize meals for them when they return home so they don’t have to worry about what to cook for dinner for their first few weeks home. Perhaps it is watching their other children for them while they go to interviews or trainings for adoption. Or maybe it is just being an ear on the other end of the phone to listen to them cry when they have had a difficult day.
    5. Pray – finally, you can pray for those kiddos out there awaiting their forever family.
    There are many ways to get involved in “orphan care.” As National Adoption Month comes to a close think about ways that you can become involved and help those children in need; those children who are waiting for their forever home and family.

  • What is Adoption? The Language of Adoption

    Contributed by Rebekah Hall, M.S.W., Director of Youth & Family Services

    Adoption has a language all its own. First there are the acronyms: ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children), ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act), USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), ROI (Report of Investigation), and the list goes on and on. Then there is “positive adoption language.” This is a language that is used in adoption to show the maximum respect, dignity, responsibility, and objectivity to the decisions made by birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children. For instance; we would say “birth parent” instead of “real parent,” or “make an adoption plan” instead of “give away my child.” While acronyms and positive adoption language are all important in the world of adoption when I think of the language of adoption some very different words come to mind. The words that come to my mind are grief/loss, courage, selflessness, and love.

    Grief/Loss – these words impact everyone within the adoption triad (birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children). Many (not all) adoptive families are pursuing adoption due to the loss of not being able to have biological children. They have had to process and grieve that loss before being ready to move forward and pursue adoption. Birth parents experience grief and loss in the act of placing a child for adoption. Whether it is a voluntary domestic placement, a woman who has had to leave her child on the doorstep of an orphanage overseas, or even a parent who has had their rights involuntarily terminated; they all will face a loss and they all must grieve. This will look different for each birth parent depending on their circumstances but they are experiencing a loss of their child. Finally, there is the adopted child. Every child adopted has a different story. Those adopted as infants don’t remember a time with their birth parents, however, they could still grieve the loss of not knowing them or feel a sense of loss in knowing certain aspects of their background. Children adopted internationally experience loss of culture and language. While it is not something that people often want to think about adoption is surrounded by grief and loss.

    Courage – adoption is about courage. When I think of the word courage and adoption my thoughts automatically go to birth parents. Deciding to place a child for adoption is an act of courage. It takes someone being brave to make that decision. I have looked into the eyes of a birth parent as they sit across my desk exploring the option of adoption and all I can think of is how courageous they are. However, I also see adoptive parents as courageous. They are willing to take a step into the unknown. Adoption comes with a lot of uncertainty and a loss of control. They must have courage to enter that world and give up that control and be okay with uncertainty; and that take courage. Finally, I see it in the adopted child who decides that they want to explore finding their birth family. This takes courage. They face possible rejection, learning that their birth parent could be deceased, or the beginning of something that could be an amazing relationship. But it takes COURAGE.

    Selflessness – again, a birth parent is the initial person who comes to mind when I think about selflessness in adoption. A birth parent who is voluntarily making an adoption plan is thinking beyond themselves. They are thinking about what is going to be best for that child. They have to move past their own feelings of hurt, loss, and grief and do what they feel is best for that child. What could be more selfless then putting the needs of someone else before your own?
    Love – this for me is the ultimate word when it comes to adoption. Adoption is love. It is the unconditional love of a birth parent to make a hard decision knowing that it is the best decision. It is an adoptive family loving the child placed with them and loving the birth parent for giving life to that child. It is the love of a child (even if it takes years for that child to show it). Adoption is about love. It is a love that can be scary, sad, or happy but is ultimately unconditional.

    So, instead of getting bogged down with the acronyms or making sure that the appropriate adoption language is used in conversations; let’s instead focus on the words that actually mean something in adoption. The words that show the emotions and feelings in adoption. Let’s remember to be compassionate to those experiencing grief and loss, to recognize the courage and selflessness that surrounds adoption, and to ultimately remember that it all comes back to one four-letter word; LOVE.