Just three days before Cathy Beach's 31st birthday, her mother died. The impact of that loss reverberated in her life for years. Holiday times with family seemed to lose their zing. "When my mom died, it was like I lost my core. A mother pulls the family together," she said.
Without their mother's unifying force and after their father remarried, she and her brother were left to find new ways to celebrate life's special family-oriented occasions.
These days, they often plan interesting holiday getaways to the ocean or to the mountains. They enjoy adventurous hiking excursions, sometimes traveling overseas to explore remote areas.
This Thanksgiving, rather than dine on the traditional fare of turkey and dressing at a relative's home, Cathy went sea kayaking in the Atlantic ocean.
Coming up with creative avenues to celebrate the holidays is a great way to deal with the realities of loss. Barbara Starr, whose husband died in 2000, remembers how difficult that time was. "I cried a lot during the first stages (of my grief). I felt that I was all alone, that no one was like me, no one had gone through anything I had gone through."
Ms. Starr also endured the imprisonment of her son a few months later.
Soon after, however, she discovered neighbors, friends, family members, even strangers who had encountered tragedies similar to hers.
"I realized that there's always someone out there who has gone through something worse than I have," she said.
"I felt God led me to open my home up that first Christmas without my husband. I invited people over who had also lost their husbands and loved ones. I made them a big banner with all the names of the family members who had gone home. I cooked dinner, and I also gave each person an ornament for each of them to write their husband's name, year born, and the year they died on it."
Today, Ms. Starr continues to reach out to widows through her own ministry. Her journey is a continual effort to stay focused on others.
Recently, after coming home and feeling low, she received a call to come share her story in the media. She accepted the offer immediately, realizing that this was her way of getting through the holidays, by serving others and reaching out.
"You have to get your eyes off of yourself and your own pain. That's when the healing begins," she says.
It's also important to take care of one's self during this season. Rachel Withers, public relations coordinator of Hospice of Chattanooga says that one of the key things taught in their holiday grief support groups is that it's OK to say "no".
It's perfectly permissible to decline an invitation to a gathering here and there, especially when participating causes an individual pain. When old traditions are impossible to maintain, create new ones, Withers says, such as "...lighting a candle for your loved one during a holiday celebration."
If you are dealing with loss during this holiday season, try something different. Take advantage of the myriad of free support groups offered to anyone in the community by agencies such as Hospice of Chattanooga and GriefShare, a national grief recovery program.
Hospice support groups span 19 counties in North Georgia and Tennessee. They are open to the public and provide support for grieving children, adults, and families. To find out more about their holiday grief support groups, go to www.hospiceofchattanooga.org.
For information on GriefShare groups, visit www.griefshare.org.