It was June of 2010 when Cathy Brown unexpectedly lost her mother. In the midst of grieving and anticipating the holidays without her mom, Brown's son passed away.
"Up to this point in my life, I had never lost anybody close to me," says Brown. "When I lost my mom and son within six months of each other, it ramped things up to a whole different experience."
As a result, Brown has a real heart for people who are grieving, especially during the holidays.
"Unless you have really experienced grief, you don't realize how much it physically drains you," says Brown. "I encourage people to be patient with themselves and to be very intentional about exercising and getting enough rest. People are better able to handle the emotional roller coaster of grief when making healthy choices."
In navigating her own journey through the grieving process, Brown has led a Griefshare group at Signal Mountain Presbyterian.
"People are often surprised at how long the grieving process takes," says Brown. "Even if this isn't the first Christmas without their loved one, people often describe the grief as being more intense than they anticipated."
As Brown helps others prepare to survive the holidays, she shares these words of wisdom and experience.
• Keep your expectations of yourself realistic. It's OK to cry. People don't expect you to have it all together.
• Don't be afraid to feel the pain. Some people try to avoid feeling the pain by keeping super busy, overeating or drinking. Allowing yourself to walk through the pain is part of the healing process.
• Make a plan. Give yourself permission to say no to some things. You don't have to participate in every single thing you get invited to attend. Nor do you have to do things in the same way you have always done them. Brown says that some people find real comfort in keeping things exactly the same, while others find it just too difficult.
• Surround yourself with people who are loving and encouraging. This makes it easier to be real. Try not to take offense at people's gestures to show they care.
• Give yourself permission to experience joy. There will be moments of laughter and joy. Some people feel guilty about this, but experiencing joy is not dishonoring to their loved one. Consider doing something in honor of your loved one that will bring you joy.
• Remember that faith plays a big part in healing. Brown described knowing that people were praying for her as huge. Being able to pray and rely on God's Word helped her immensely. She had never felt the presence of God in such an amazing way.
• Know that everybody handles grief differently. Just because your spouse doesn't grieve in exactly the same way you do does not mean he/she is not grieving. The Browns quickly learned that that could be a source of tension in their marriage and they needed to guard against it.
"My hope is that those who are grieving will take these suggestions to heart," says Brown. "I also would encourage people to go to griefshare.org and sign up for 365 days of inspirational emails. In addition to trying to do all of the things listed above, the daily emails were uplifting and encouraging, especially on the toughest days.
Email Julie Baumgardner, president and CEO of family advocacy organization First Things First, at email@example.com.