Her mother’s death five weeks ago put a somber spin on the holidays for Mina Dinong of Ewa Beach, who questioned whether she should observe Christmas this year.
"She really loved the holidays," said Dinong, 40, of her mother, Genoveva "Eva" Macadaeg, who died Nov. 8 at the age of 60. "We couldn’t imagine celebrating without her."
Dinong decided one of the best ways to cope with her grief would be to carry on with her mom’s holiday traditions.
"Mama would not want me to abandon the children. She loved seeing the big smiles on their faces," she said.
The entire celebration will be dedicated to her mother’s memory when the family gathers for a potluck and tree decorating following 40 days of prayer vigils for Macadaeg. "She gave me lots of recipes and trained me how to cook when I was younger. So, I’ll be making all of her favorite foods," Dinong said.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is no easy feat, and when you add the holidays into the mix, it can become overwhelming, according to bereavement counselors. Grief can be amplified with the onslaught of social obligations, and jolly celebrations filled with family traditions, favorite foods and activities can be a painful reminder of the loss.
"Holidays can be exhausting for the healthiest of persons," said Robert Bright, bereavement care coordinator with Bristol Hospice in Honolulu.
"Someone grieving may not want to be in crowds, drive in traffic, cook, decorate, attend performances or family events, be social or spiritual," he said.
Three years ago St. Andrew’s began holding "Blue Christmas: A Service of Reflection for the Longest Night," which draws on Scripture and music that is more reflective than celebratory, such as "Silent Night" instead of "Joy to the World," said John Renke, director of music at St. Andrew’s.
Hurting at holiday time
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"We have people from every walk of life, not necessarily ‘church people’ (who attend the service). Those who have come are moved, and they bring people the next year. Many people come, but it’s still an amazingly private time," he said. "There’s something powerful about feeling your grief that way. And maybe you’re not in that place in your life, but your presence can be helpful to others.
The "Blue Christmas" service, this year on Dec. 21, does not diminish the anticipation and joy of Christmas, but acknowledges the sadness, hardships and losses that people have dealt with during the year, he said.
"We have so many losses: parents, friendships, a marriage, a job, our health. There is a great comfort to be found in our faith and our traditions," Renke said.
The main thing to remember is not to "get sucked into Christmas as normal," said Clarence Liu, chaplain and director of patient and family services for Hospice Hawaii. He explained "the three C’s" of coping with holiday grief are choice, communication and compromise.
People often feel pressured to fulfill traditional holiday obligations, but Liu said it’s perfectly fine to decline invitations. However, communication is key in dealing with these situations. "Most reasonable folks will understand. It’s harder when people just don’t show up and participate with no explanation. Tell them that you are fine but need some quiet time," he said.
Compromise comes into play, for example, when the kids are looking forward to certain events and gatherings but a parent might not be feeling up to the celebration. "Consider going after the formal dinner or for a portion of time. Don’t feel like you have to attend the whole event. The main thing is that people need to realize that they have a say in the matter. You don’t gotta do anything. … You can choose," Liu said.
Although a loved one might be gone, there is a still a relationship between the deceased and those left behind, and that should be honored, he said. Serving favorite foods or creating an ornament in the person’s memory can be comforting. "It may sound morbid, but some people leave an empty chair at the dinner table. It gives expression to their presence there. Other people bring their dinner to the cemetery," he said.
It doesn’t really matter what a person chooses to do, Liu explained. "But it’s important for people who are grieving to say, ‘We’re here, and you are a part of this celebration.’ It can be very powerful."
Seniors who live in a foster-care setting often participate in the caregiver’s family festivities, especially if their own ohana is gone or absent, said Donna Schmidt, chief executive officer of Case Management Inc., a company that provides comprehensive case management services and foster-home care to those in need of long-term care.
"Clients get lonely and depressed over the holidays," she said. "We provide special training for our caregivers on how to determine whether clients are suffering from normal holiday stressors or if their ability to function is impaired due to persistent depression."
Clients who are displaying nervousness, eating more or less than usual, sleeping more or less than usual, complaining of headaches or stomachaches or becoming withdrawn could be exhibiting more serious symptoms of depression, according to Schmidt.
She recalled one CMI client who was withdrawn and uncommunicative, even though the woman’s caregiver included her in many activities. "Then, during the holidays, the caregiver started playing the usual Christmas songs and carols. As the music echoed throughout the house, the caregiver noticed the lady was smiling and tapping her foot to the beat of the music. It wasn’t long before she started opening up and becoming active again," Schmidt said.
"The most important thing is to have a heart-to-heart connection with the elder and to let them know that they are loved and embraced throughout the holiday season."
Help for the grieving
Several area support groups are available to help those coping with grief during the holidays:
» "Blue Christmas: A Service of Reflection for the Longest Night": 5:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 229 Queen Emma Square. The service offers music, silent meditation and healing prayer for those experiencing inner turmoil at Christmastime. Call 524-2822, ext. 217.
» Potluck Social Christmas Celebration: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday for seniors and their foster families. Sponsored by Case Management Inc., 94-830 Hikimoe St., Waipahu. Call 676-1192 or visit www.cmihawaii.com.
» Borthwick Mortuary: Provides literature and videos for bereavement support, and a "Picking Up the Pieces" program for those coping with the death of a loved one. Call 522-5200.
» Bristol Hospice: A bereavement support circle is held 10 a.m. Tuesdays at Unity Church, 3608 Diamond Head Circle.
» Castle Medical Center: Weekly meeting 7 p.m. Tuesdays, with a monthly group at 11:30 a.m. every third Thursday. Call Chaplain David Rasmussen at 222-3259.
» Compassionate Friends: Self-help group assists parents and siblings with adjustments to grief and loss meets at 10 a.m. on first Saturday monthly at Waikiki Yacht Club. Visit www.compassionatefriendshonolulu.org.
» GriefShare: A 13-week nondenominational seminar and support group for the grieving at the First Presbyterian Church. Call Pastor Sim or Sharon at 532-1111 or visit www.griefshare.org. Cost is $10 for workbook.
» HOPING (Helping Other Parents in Normal Grieving): Support group for parents who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. Meets at 4 p.m. on the first Saturday monthly at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, 3288 Moanalua Road. Also provides phone support for grieving parents. Call 432-2260.
» Hospice Hawaii: Meets at Hospice Hawaii, 860 Iwilei Road, at 6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday monthly and at Kapiolani Medical Center at Pali Momi on the second Wednesday monthly. Call Clarence Liu at 924-9255 or visit www.hospicehawaii.org.
» Kids Hurt, Too: Program is designed for youth ages 3 to 19 (and their families) who have experienced a loss from the death of someone close, divorce, or separation. Call Cynthia White at 545-5683 or visit www.kidshurttoo.org.
» MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving-Victim Services): Program is designed for those who have lost a loved one to a drunken-driving crash or homicide. For Honolulu information, call Annelise Rossi at 532-6233. In Hilo, call 943-0300 or 664-6233.
» St. Francis Hospice: Offers grief classes at 5:30 p.m. at St. Francis Hospice-West, 91-2127 Fort Weaver Road. Call Linda Conboy at 547-8147 or e-mail LWyant@stfrancishawaii.org. Registration is required.
» Walk in the Mall: Open to anyone who has had a loss. Meets at 8 a.m. on the first Wednesday monthly from 8 to 9 a.m. at Pearlridge Center, Uptown, Center Court. Also, at Kahala Mall center stage at 8 a.m. on the third Wednesday monthly, and Windward Mall at 9 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday monthly. Call Felicia Marquez-Wong at 547-8145.