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How to cope when experiencing loss and grief during the holiday season

Posted at 4:51 PM, Dec 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-20 16:51:26-05

MEDINA, Ohio — We often talk about the joy that the holidays bring, but often times we overlook some of the sadness and loneliness that many people experience this time of year.

The feelings can be particularly heavy for anyone who has lost a loved one.

There’s nothing that can prepare you for the unexpected loss of a spouse or someone close to you. Sometimes asking for help can be the hardest step to take.

“It's just harder because you have this vision that the media puts out of this perfect holiday setting,” said 72-year-old June of Medina County. “It's not like that for many people.”

June lost her husband Richard in January 2021 to complications from COVID-19. The pair met in 1970, marrying two years later in 1972. Married for 48 years total, the couple had known each other for over half a century.

“He was the most kind, loving person,” June said. “It's a difficult situation, especially, you know, when you can't say goodbye in person or be with them.”

When he was 50 years old, Richard was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The illness didn’t define him and June never let it slow him down. After retiring from teaching, June took up traveling. And even with Parkinson’s, it didn’t stop the pair from taking on the world together.

“I took him places during COVID and we couldn't travel. We did every park and arboretum and botanical garden,” June said. “I even took him on the towpath or the metro parks. I'd bike and he would scoot on his scooter.

Despite battling the disease together, nothing could prepare June for the unexpected loss of her husband. Richard suffered a stroke on New Year’s Day 2021. He was diagnosed with COVID shortly after and eventually died on Jan. 25, 2021.

“It was like I say, a vicious cycle of dealing with pandemic and and not the ritual of loss and grief that normally would happen,” June said.

As the wrestled with the grief from her loss, June found out about a study through the University of Pittsburgh for widowed elders. The study, coined Widowed Elders Lifestyle after Loss (WELL) was specifically for adults 60 years and older who are grieving the recent loss of a spouse or partner.

It promotes bereaved elders' mental health by focusing on healthy lifestyle practices.

“We're constantly surrounded by joyful, happy, cheerful things. But it's okay to, you know, to feel sad and feel lonely,” said Dr. Sarah Stahl, an associate professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

The study recorded daily physical activity, diet, and sleep behaviors and participants were met with feedback about goals they set along the way.

Grief never goes away. And so, it could still happen ten, 15, 20 years after the loss,” Stahl said.

Through the study, June found comfort in having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of along the way.

“The sleeping was really a problem. You've been with somebody for 50 years and then all of a sudden your bed is half empty,” June said.

June said she’s learned one critical thing from the study, that is particularly valuable this holiday season: That it’s okay to ask for help.

She has continued her travels, recently returning from a visit to Turkey and said it helps her feel connected to her husband even after his death.

“There's a Bible verse that says, ‘I can do all things through Christ. Who strengthens me,’” June said. “But then I add, ‘But I don't have to do all things.’ So I look for help now.”

Grief can make you feel solitary, but it can also be a shared experience. Through the loss, June stays connected with others and understands that it’s okay if the holidays look different this year.

“When you experience such a jolting loss and your life turns around, I guess I realized I need to lean on other people,” she said.

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