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Grief during the holidays: Tips and resources from Sea to Sky Hospice Society

‘It's OK to say their name.’

It is part of what makes us human. 

At some point, grief comes knocking for every single person. 

From a mother grieving an unborn child lost, to an adult child mourning the loss of a centenarian grandparent and everything in between, death hurts. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association notes that the loss of a loved one is one of the most stressful things people can endure. 

It can impact us physically as much as mentally, leading to everything from sleep disruptions to digestive issues, increased risks of cold and flu, and even heart attacks for some. 

"During the first four to six months after the loss of a loved one, people are more likely to experience some type of physical problem, with men being at greater risk than women," said Marilyn Mendoza, a clinical instructor in the psychiatry department at Tulane University Medical Center, in a Psychology Today article. 

The holidays, while joyful for many, can be especially emotionally painful for the grieving. 

"There's memories that come with Christmas and the traditions and so you notice that gap, notice that loss. You notice the missing seat at the table or the role that that person may have played in those traditions," said Diana Gunstone, a volunteer and bereavement support co-ordinator with the Sea to Sky Hospice Society.

It is also a very social time of year and those who are grieving may not feel all that social.

Tips if grieving

Gunstone says for those who are currently actively grieving, the key is to be gentle with yourself.

"Be kind and don't set huge social expectations," she said, adding to expect the season to be different this year. 

"Some people may try to carry on with traditions to keep the normalcy and the continuity, and others may say, ‘No, it's time to have a new tradition.’"

Gunstone stressed that grief is different for every person who goes through it, so respecting that for yourself and others is important.

Support for the grieving

For those who will encounter someone over the coming festive days who is grieving, a supportive thing to do is just to acknowledge the loss, Gunstone said, that simply saying that you know the person passed and that it is hard goes a long way.

"It's OK to say their name," Gunstone said. 

Asking if they have enough food or if they would like help with decorating the yard, are examples of specific forms of help you can offer. 

"Just being empathetic, and that you can see where they're at and try and meet them where they're at," Gunstone said.

If the person grieving is from a different background or culture, ask about the traditions they observe. For example, perhaps a neighbour who is grieving won't be leaving the house for a period of time due to their customs around death; in that case, an offer to drop things off might be welcome.

In terms of what not to do, Gunstone noted that asking someone a general question about what you can do to help can be overwhelming to someone in grief.. 

"Offer some [very specific] things that they'll either say yes or they'll decline and then letting that be," she said. 

Another thing not to do when interacting with someone who is grieving this holiday is to be a "cheerleader."

People sometimes want to find the positive in the loss, but for the grieving person, that is not helpful. 

Saying things like, "Oh, they had a great life," or "They lived a long life," aren't comforting to the person suffering a loss. 

"You still miss them and they're still gone. And it still hurts," Gunstone said. 

There is also no set timeline for grief. A loss may hit someone hard a year or five years later, so respecting the individuality of grief and avoid judging that journey, she said. 

"It might be the first Christmas [after a loss] and it could be a second, third or fourth—it still can be hard. It's not just the first."

At the same time, some grieving folks may take comfort in the holidays or feel some joy around it—don't judge how others grieve against how you think they should. 

(See more tips in photo gallery.)


While some may think of hospice as primarily for end-of-life care for the dying, it is also for those coping with loss, or the anticipation of loss, of a loved one.

"Part of the hospice's mission is to support families and individuals who have lost a loved one," said Gunstone.

"It really takes a community when one is grieving," she said. 

There are memory trees that are lit on the last Friday in November at the Town Hub (adjacent to Locavore / Cloudburst and shops).

This is the 11th year for this tradition; three trees are up and lit until Jan. 3. 

If anyone wants to pick up a memory tree tag—a wooden heart—to hang on the tree in memory of a loved one, there are tags in a basket in the Cloudburst Café on the centre shelf that are complimentary for the community while supplies last.

"The three trees offer community a time to remember loved ones, share memories, and on Nov. 24 they were lit during a short ceremony—sharing light during a dark time of year," she added.

There are also other free programs aimed at helping the bereaved. 

For example, there are Squamish weekly drop-in bereavement walks at 10 a.m., which is simply a relaxed walk for those who are grieving. 

Moreover, starting Jan. 11 at the Squamish Public Library, there will be a Grief and Loss Conversations group that runs for eight weeks. These weekly one-hour drop-ins are for those who are grieving, if and when they have the energy to attend. 

"It's another opportunity to talk about what you're experiencing and explore," Gunstone said.

There are many other resources available through the hospice that can be helpful, such as a supportive bereavement package.

There's also an online support group for those in the corridor who aren't able to come in person to Squamish events. Gunstone said the next group begins in late January.

Check the hospice's event page for all that is available and the Sea to Sky Hospice Society website for more resources.

Finally, Gunstone recommended the book It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand by Megan Devine for those who recently experienced the loss of a loved one. 


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