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Coping during the holidays with the loss of a loved one

For most people, the holiday season brings joy. But for those mourning the loss of a loved one, it can be a time of overwhelming sadness.

"The holidays are full of all the sensorial reminders of special memories," says Helen Harris, an assistant professor at the Baylor School of Social Work, who has written extensively about loss and grief. "The first year or two after a loss, people get flooded with lots and lots of memories."

No matter how well someone is coping, there are events that can trigger an episode of grief. Perhaps it's holiday decorations at the mall. Or it could be a favorite Christmas song or the smells of holiday treats. For some, receiving a Christmas or Hanukkah card after the death of a spouse addressed to "Mr. and Mrs." can bring an overpowering feeling of emptiness. "I think of them as waves of grief that crash over you and then recede," Harris says. "They do sort of surprise you."

And just as the triggers of grief are different for each person, so are the coping mechanisms. Some find comfort in participating in traditional events and doing things as they've always done them, such as going to holiday dinners with friends and families or hosting the event at their own home. But that is not for everyone. "Other people are going to feel that's just too challenging and too difficult," Harris says. "People determine their own level of healing when their hearts are broken."

Friends and family of someone who recently suffered a loss want to help but often don't know what to say. "The key for helping people who are grieving at the holidays is to remember that there's no one formula for everybody," Harris says. If you invite the person to holiday dinner, don't push if he or she refuses. "People can decide what will be therapeutic for them and what will be too painful for them," Harris says.

If you're coping with a loss, a seminar at Sachem Library led by a social worker from Stony Brook University Medical Center may help. The group discussion will cover life-changing events, including the loss of a loved one. The seminar is next Saturday at 10 a.m.; call 631-588-5024.

Though you may not know anyone in the group, just being with others can be beneficial. "There's a lot of wisdom in the adage that 'shared grief is diminished grief,' " Harris says. "When we're grieving, we just sort of do better around other people."

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