Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

Bereaved cope with grief during the holidays

December 9, 2001


It's a belief in Marge Hazlett's family that when loved ones die, they become birds.

Perhaps the spirit of Hazlett's mother was carried away by the flock of geese that flew overhead in the moments after she passed.

Hazlett's husband, Bob, must have been looking down on his grandson the day a hawk circled the Topeka house where he was playing.

And Hazlett can't help but think that the redbird that landed on her car in the weeks after her 22-year-old daughter Mindy died of leukemia was her little girl, lingering awhile to comfort her mother.

So, for the last several Christmas seasons, Hazlett has set out a miniature "bird tree," decorated with winged creatures that represent deceased relatives.

"It's a comfort when I get the tree out each year because I feel like they are still out there, their spirits," she said. "I don't know what I'd do without all those memories."

Hazlett's husband died suddenly five years ago. Mindy succumbed to her disease a few weeks before Christmas in 1978.

Part of the grieving process for Hazlett and millions of others learning to live with loss has been coping during the holidays. Dozens of books on grieving offer guidance with suggestions like starting new holiday traditions, keeping journals, writing poetry or establishing memorials in the name of a loved one.

But, as Hazlett says, "there is no recipe for grieving and certainly no timetable."

First holidays

Marge and Bob Hazlett were so numb after their daughter died that they might have forgotten about Christmas altogether. But their other daughter, Karen, invited some friends over for the family's annual tree-trimming party.

"That's when you know you have to go on. There's other people counting on you," Marge Hazlett said. "If she (Karen) had not done that, I'm not too sure what we would have done."

For Bob Carlson, who lost his wife, Linda, to cancer just before Thanksgiving three years ago, clinging to holiday pastimes has been a comfort.

"We went right into that first Thanksgiving a week after she passed," he said.

Nearly 30 family members gathered at Carlson's home, where they'd always come for the holiday. Thanksgiving Day itself was very jubilant, he said. The difficult part was that his wife always had been the one who decorated the house and cooked the meal.

"The preparation for it was filled with trauma," Carlson said. "How did she decorate the table? What decorations did she put out on the kitchen counter? That was a lot of tears.

"But to me, it was the only way to do it. We've done it ever since."

Reaching out

A few days after his wife's funeral, Carlson happened upon an invaluable outlet for his grief.

"I woke up for the first time in my life at 3 in the morning in such a way that I knew there was no going back to sleep," he said. "I ended up on the Internet. I just sat there thinking, 'What can I do to fill my mind and get through this time?'"

He found a chat room for widows and widowers. After he'd been sitting for about 10 minutes without saying anything, another person in the chat room asked him why. When Carlson said he'd just buried his wife on Saturday, the entire chat room 23 people typed his name inside parentheses to symbolize a hug.

The digital room became a safe place for Carlson to seek refuge to talk with people who truly understood what it's like to lose a spouse. He spent a year and a half visiting the room to work through his grief.

"Those many long nights when I wasn't able to sleep, I would sit on the computer in the chat room and talk to others about their losses and griefs," he said. "Those people understood your feelings on days when the tears wouldn't stop and the stomach was filled with a void that you couldn't stop the pain from."

Carlson still visits the room occasionally and finds relief in helping others the way strangers helped him early on.

Marge and Bob Hazlett discovered a similar outlet for their grief. Shortly after their daughter died, they helped establish a support group for bereaved parents. Talking with people who'd experienced the gut-wrenching pain of losing a child helped them navigate their journey of mourning.

"We realized we weren't crazy," Marge Hazlett said. "I used to think I'd see Mindy's car, or someone sat next to me at church I thought looked like her."

Other bereaved parents in the group shared similar experiences.

"It was very beneficial to me," Hazlett said.

Other special days

Hazlett's daughter Mindy loved Christmas. Losing her close to the holiday created an even greater burden of grief for her parents.

Death near a holiday is usually more difficult, said Larry McElwain, funeral director at Warren-McElwain Mortuary.

"It ties it to a time of year that's supposed to be better warm and fuzzy," he said. "We're supposed to feel different at Thanksgiving and Christmas than the rest of the year."

But it's not just the major holidays that are tumultuous, McElwain said. It's also birthdays, wedding anniversaries and death dates.

Carlson remembers waking up on Aug. 25 the year after his wife died with a nagging feeling that there was something special about the day.

"The Lord, in his wisdom, would not allow me to remember what it was," he said.

It wasn't until his co-workers mentioned it at the end of the day that he realized it would have been his 36th wedding anniversary. Such dates seem to get more difficult to face over time, he said.

"You don't live in that feeling of grief 24 hours a day anymore," he said. "When you get near one of those dates it all starts to come back."

In memorial

Although remembering a deceased loved one sometimes conjures up pain, sadness and tears, that doesn't mean a person should avoid mentioning the name of the deceased to mourners, Hazlett said.

"People think by not mentioning their name, it makes you feel better," she said. "The worst thing they can do is not to mention their name because we want to talk about them.

"And if you have a special memory of that person, for gosh sakes tell the person. It's so wonderful when you know that someone else loved your loved one like you did."

Hazlett has found other ways to keep the memory of her young daughter alive. Each Christmas, she picks out a nice tree to take to Plymouth Congregational Church, where members of the congregation decorate it with mittens, gloves and scarves that are later donated to the Salvation Army.

The mitten tree has been a most meaningful tribute to Mindy, Hazlett said.

"Each time I see a little child place mittens on the tree, it warms my heart," she said. "So even though she is no longer with us, her spirit continues to warm others."

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