Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Christmas Casseroles Stopped After Two Weeks

By Donna Gore

As the holiday season approaches, those of us who are the veteran survivors of crime are cognizant of the flood of emotions evoked on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas and the New Year’s holidays… as well as anniversary dates.

Those who have recently been accosted by violent crime, for the first time experience a vacuous holiday season without their loved one.  Holidays that once held meaning, are no more.  Survivors of crime say to them, “What’s the point anymore?”  

New survivors are assaulted with holiday images at every turn.  This year in particular due to our dismal economy, I saw my first Xmas image before the Halloween candy was distributed!

Tinsel and materialism aside, as a new survivor, we don’t want to look at these images or be reminded.   We don’t want to hear “Holly, Jolly Xmas” pervading our grocery aisles.  We cannot face any of it.

At some point it hits us that we have to face the holidays.
They will come no matter what has occurred before.  What to do about that empty seat at the dinner table?  What to do about the gifts you can’t bring yourself to buy and the little rituals your beloved “always took care of.”
Our surviving relatives may be able to function, but we can’t…
Our friends try to “pick up the slack” by offering to “do anything needed.”

“Call if you need anything”.  “Just let me know how I can help” are familiar refrains and certainly well meaning. However, such offers do not help us because they don’t appreciate our state of inertia.  What we really need are concrete suggestions and offers.  Even well meaning friends frequently have no idea how to help during that acute phase.

Therefore, below I present to you a holiday list of “What to Do” from my archives compiled years ago by the Victim Assistance Douglas County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado (with my personal additions and  refinements).

I also offer a list of “Getting through the Holidays,” compliments of Survivors of Homicide, Inc. in Connecticut.  Whether you chose to use any of these suggestions or not, we will always remember our loved one in some way during the holiday season. *** To that end, it is in the establishing of new traditions, even small ones that create new meaning in out lives


1)   Your presence at any public service and a handshake or hug will provide more support than any “rehearsed remarks” that you could possibly think of.

2)   As the friend or relative, you should take the initiative to get in touch by telephone or card.  It’s never too late to express your love and concern.

3)   Don’t say, “Call and let me know how I can help” (Most never will). 
Rather, take the initiative and,
a) Cook a meal;
b) Freeze one for a future meal;
c) Babysit;
d) Do some shopping for them;
e) Help with phone calls;
f) Do some driving ( to the airport, train station etc)

4)   Let them talk… and tell their story over and over again. Listening is the most important support now.  It is in telling the story that survivors are able to begin the long healing process.  Allow them screaming room.

5)   While listening, be careful not to assume feelings, place blame or rationalize reasons for what happened.  You are not there to agree or disagree.  Listen and affirm their right to feel as they do.

6)   Avoid making comments such as:
“You’ll have other children”
“You’ll get married again”
“It was God’s will”
“Be brave”
“Don’t cry”
“Don’t talk about it”
“In time you will have closure”

7)   Accept them for who they are and who they have become.  Your loving support now will help them to accept themselves and come to some sort of peace (NOT CLOSURE) with this loss.

8)   Share some positive memories with the survivors.  Happy and warm memories help the healing process.

9)   Be persistent in your offer of help long term.  It is difficult to ask for help.  The survivor of crime will need your help more and more as the months pass, not less, which is a common mistake.  Everyone wants to bring casseroles for the first two weeks and then they often “go back to their own lives assuming that you “can now “go it alone” which is the farthest thing from truth or reality.

10) Don’t suggest sedatives.  That will only delay the healing process.  It is much better if they can make it through without medication.  However, if needed a doctor should be consulted instead of your medicine cabinet.

11) Be sure to allow the bereaved partner or parent to make the services they wish rather than questioning them on their choices or trying to “take over.”  If not, resentment and anger may occur if their decisions were not respected.  On the other hand, if they ask for specific assistance, follow-through with their requests.

12) Understand that there is no specific timetable for grief! 
Allow them all the time they need to “recover” and begin to function again.  It may take a few months to several years.  Also, keep in mind that grief will reoccur many times. (Particularly during the court/trial process with it’s many delays, postponements etc. known as “the re-victimization.”)

13) Acknowledge anniversary dates such as death dates, their birthdays or anniversaries.  Take their lead in terms of how they will be observed.  A phone call or hug acknowledging the date will offer comfort.  Never ignore

14) Accept their silence if that is all they can offer.  Be patient with them.

15) Comfort the children in the family, not just the adults.  If you are unsure how to approach them or are at a loss of what to say, consult with a professional bereavement therapist or a fellow homicide survivor for advice.  Never lie to children.  However, tell them what they can comprehend and respond to their direct questions without getting too complex or abstract.

16) Avoid halting all conversations with others in their presence.  However, get a feel for what they can handle at the moment.  At times, conversations about other topics or even a funny moment can be a welcome distraction from grief.

17) Allow them to “work trough their grief.”  In other words, do not whisk away photos or clothing. Permit the bereaved to remove such items in their own time.

18) If your relative or friend is in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed and cannot process the day to day conversations, write a letter so that they may read it on their own time and appreciate your relationship at a later time.

19) Encourage postponement of major decisions until the intense grief has
subsided.  Encourage the bereaved to seek advice from clergy, attorneys, real estate personnel so that they are not taken advantage of at their most vulnerable time.


You must realize that grieving persons have definite limitations.  We do not function at normal capacity.  Therefore, we must reevaluate our priorities and decide what is really meaningful for our families and us.

1)We must decide what we can handle comfortably, and let those needs be known to family and friends.

-      Whether or not to talk about our loved one openly;
-      Whether we can handle the responsibility of the family dinner. holiday parties etc., or if we wish someone else to take over some or all of these tasks;
-      Whether we will stay here for the holidays or we choose to “run away” to a totally different holiday environment this year;

2) Don’t be afraid to make changes. It really can make things less painful!
- Open presents Christmas #Eve  instead of Christmas morning;
- Have dinner at a different time;
- Attend a different church for your Christmas Eve services;
- Let the children take over decorating the tree or making cookies

3) Our greatest comfort may be in doing something for others.  You may be able to acknowledge your loss more meaningfully by:

-      Giving a gift or money donation in memory of your loved one;
-      Adopting a needy family or guest for the holidays;
-      Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen

4)    Whether it’s greeting cards, holiday baking, putting up the tree, decorating, dinner preparations or visiting others, ask these questions before making any decisions:
-      Have I involved or considered my other family members?
-      Do I really enjoy this task or does other family prefer to do it?
-      Can I share or delegate those tasks?
-      Would this Holiday be the same without it?

5)    How many stockings should we hang? We may decide to:
-      Put them all up;
-      Hang no stockings at all;
-      Write our thoughts and feelings down about our loved one and have a special stocking with a designated reader;
-      A family burns a “special candle” on all their special days to quietly include “their presence;”
-      Chose a new tradition among family members to include the one who has passed such as ; hanging a special wreath; buying an item they collected, planting a tree

6)    Plan ahead for the shopping days with a ready made list.  When you have a good day” you will not be as exhausted or shop with a friend and shop at dinnertime when the crowds are much less.

      7)  Holiday cards- If this task is too overwhelming, some families enclose the little funeral service card into your pre-purchased greeting cards for those who may not be aware of your loss.  Ask a friend or relative to make address labels on the computer to help with this task.

Finally, the above suggestions were offered pre technology.  Therefore, someone may want to create a website or Face book page in honor of your loved one….

Respectfully Submitted
Donna R. Gore, M. A.
Homicide Survivor in Connecticut

1 comment:

  1. Donna, thank you so much for your thoughtful advice. I was especially taken with your ninth way of helping: persistence in long-term help. I've noticed the same thing you bring out about the sudden shock of being left alone after two weeks of near suffocation by family members and friends who want to give support.

    I wonder, though, if there's a sense that the person can now "go it alone" or if something else is at work here. In a person's life there are always emergencies, other friends or relatives with serious illness, and even other violent incidents that compete for immediate attention. So in the space of two or three weeks, another event is likely to come up.

    A corollary to conflict of attention is simple compassion fatigue. Neighbors, family members, sometimes even we ourselves can drain all the energy from a person offering to help. There's nothing wrong with taking some time to recharge the batteries.

    This is not to excuse anyone, even myself, for trailing off or dropping out of a support role. Rather, it's to do the same thing you did by calling attention to the fact that we need to revisit our own response to a person's need for our support. Perhaps we can push through the onset of fatigue and just be more intentional about being there for a person in need.

    Thanks again for an excellent article.



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