Holidays are not always joyful
The dining room was warm and welcoming. Tables, adorned with flowers and lit with tea lights, twinkling as the guests drifted in, took a seat. Young people, middle aged couples, some a bit beyond the middle, from all walks of life, mingling, greeting one another in hushed voices. Strangers to many, everyone in the room shares one common bond. They have all buried a son or daughter, grandchild, a brother or sister.
As one of the most joyous of holidays approaches, the bereaved are gathering to remember during the 17th annual Compassionate Friends candle lighting ceremony in Oneida County.
“Christmas is different for everyone, especially families who are grieving the loss of a child or sibling,” said Northern Lights chapter president Sally Winger. “We are here when somebody needs us. The candle lighting and balloon release is important to the group.”
Holidays, especially Christmas, take on new meanings for the newly bereaved, according to Hospice Bereavement Coordinator Jennifer LaPorte-McCanles. “There is such a sense of ritual with Christmas, and if this is someone’s first one without their loved one, they have to figure out how incorporate that loved one into the holiday,” she said. “It’s important for the bereaved to let go of expectations, give themselves permission to cut back on parties, but also to realize that laughter and joy are not disrespectful. They need to be nice to themselves and realize it’s okay to bow out of festivities.”
The Compassionate Friends (TCF) has been around to support parents following the death of a child for some forty years; Winger became involved following the death of her daughter, Kali, fourteen years ago. Then sixteen-year old Kali was a passenger in a car driven by another teen who had been drinking. The car accident was less than two miles from Kali’s home.
“I got a call from the hospital around midnight saying that Kali had been in a serious accident,” Winger recalled. “I am a nurse so I had an idea what to expect, but when I got there they told me she didn’t make it…and I was just no..no…no…no…”
According to government statistics, some 150,000 children, age birth through 19, will die each year. TCF was founded with the idea that grieving parents could best support one another. Like members of a club to which no one wants to belong, parents learn they are not alone in facing this terrible tragedy-that others have also faced the isolation and desperation the loss of a child can bring.
“The loss of a child is an unspeakable loss. People don’t know what to say to grieving parents—the thought of the pain is too much, leaving the parents to experience alienation,” LaPorte-McCanles said. “You just have to realize who you can count on for what you need at the time.”
“Grief is work; it’s hard work,” LaPorte-McCanles stated, “And there are physical manifestations of it, too. And death is hard. We have trouble with the language of death.”
Winger says she tries to always see the positives from the tragedy. “My older daughter was in college at the time of the accident, and now she is a school counselor, and is able to relate to students who face similar struggles.”
As for her involvement in The Compassionate Friends, that too, generally has a happy ending. “It’s good to be there for people, to help them get through their grief,” Winger said. “And it’s great to see them years later and see how they have transformed and grown.”