Jeff Burkhead photo. Karen Glotzbach and her grandson Zairean cuddle during a break from playing at Glotzbach’s home.
When the holiday's aren't exactly happy
By Jeff Burkhead, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center
For Karen Glotzbach, the day started like any other. But within hours, everything changed. Forever.
The unimaginable had happened.
Glotzbach’s granddaughter, Autumn, was killed in an accidental shooting on Sept. 22. Autumn, the youngest child of Chance and Megan Smith, died six days before her second birthday at the home she shared in Lawrence with her parents and brother.
Juliet Nelson, Bert Nash Psychologist
Help is available
If you are grieving and would like some help, please consider contacting:
Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, 200 Maine Street, Suite A, Lawrence; www.bertnash.org.
Bert Nash center provides emergency services 24 hours a day:785-843-9192.
Headquarters Counseling Center, 211 East Eighth Street, Suite C, Lawrence; www.headquarterscounselingcenter.org. Headquarters also operates a free counseling line that is answered 24 hours a day: 800-273-8255
Lawrence Memorial Hospital offers a Grief Support Group that is facilitated by LMH Chaplain Angela Lowe. The group, which is open to anyone, meets the first and third Mondays of each month in the LMH chapel or in Lowe’s office on the second floor of the hospital, 325 Maine Street, Lawrence. For more information, including meeting times, please call 785-505-3140. For more about LMH, visit www.lmh.org.
Douglas County Visiting Nurses, 200 Maine Street, Suite C, Lawrence; 785-843-3738. Visiting Nurses, commonly referred to as VNA, provides an adult grief support group, as well as a group for children, teens and their parents or caregivers. In addition, VNA facilitates an informal coffee and conversation time at a local fast-food restaurant. Call VNA or visit its website at www.kansasvna.org for more information.
“It was the worst thing you could ever imagine,” Glotzbach said. “That was the worst 24 hours of my entire life.”
Not that there haven’t been bad days since. There have been plenty. During the past three months, Glotzbach and her family have had to learn — however painful the process — how to deal with the loss of a cherished child and grandchild. And now, they’re entering what often is described as the most wonderful time of the year. For people who are experiencing tremendous emotional pain, the season of joy can be anything but joyful.
Glotzbach has found solace in her faith and in the support of family and friends. But the sense of loss is ever-present. And there have been tears. Lots of tears.
“We will still be looking for the peace and comfort that Christmas should bring,” she said. “But no matter how much faith you have, there’s still going to be tears, there will still be questions.”
And that’s perfectly normal, said Juliet Nelson, a psychologist with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
“Grieving is a process,” Nelson said. “You can’t deny that there will be sadness.”
However, heightened expectations to be cheerful during the holidays can compound the feelings of sadness for people who are experiencing loss. It may be helpful to lower or remove those expectations and to allow yourself or others to do what feels right and to accept a range of emotions, Nelson said.
“It’s important to validate the pain of loss and to acknowledge the pressure people feel to hold it together,” Nelson said. “It may seem sensible to just push away sadness or other more difficult emotions, but this often interrupts the grieving process and increases the fear of emotional life. It can be a relief for those suffering to remember that humans can survive terrible grief and still move on in meaningful ways with their lives.”
The expectation of joy can exert a lot of pressure on people who are adjusting to a new normal, and it actually can increase anxiety at a time when people already may feel resentful about the holiday season.
“People feel like they have to mask a joyful spirit, or they feel pressure imposed by the season, so they pretend to be happy because they don’t want other people to be brought down by their sadness, and then you start to hate the holidays,” Nelson said.
Instead of trying to fulfill the expectation of being joyful, perhaps people who have suffered a loss can aspire to be at peace and can take time for reflection, which Nelson noted is in tune with the holidays. She also suggested focusing on the people who are important in your life and on things that matter, rather than on the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
“There’s a push to celebrate during this time of year, but you can do it mindfully versus compulsively,” Nelson said. “Be serenely happy versus intensely happy, which can feel forced.”
Nelson is navigating her own sense of loss this holiday season. Her nephew died unexpectedly in October.
“I’m being careful not to push my nephew out of my mind, but to let thoughts and feelings about him come and go, so that I’m processing as I go and telling myself that feelings are there for a reason,” she said. “There will be times that we will be sad, but if you cope, little by little as you go, it’s going to be easier than putting it off for some other time.”
It can be helpful to talk with other people who are struggling.
“By connecting with people who are also in grief, it doesn’t feel so lonely,” Nelson said.
For people who know someone who is dealing with grief or a loss, though, it can be hard to know what to say or what to do. Nelson suggests following that person’s lead. Trying to cheer them up can be counterproductive.
“The person may or may not want to talk about it, but allow them the space to do that,” she said. “When someone is in emotional pain we often kind of run away from them because we’re phobic of saying or doing the wrong thing.”
Remember to be kind. Offer your time. But remember: The path of the grieving is not straight and it is not a finite length. As Nelson says, “People have ups and downs.”
Be aware when the person who is grieving is giving you cues and be aware of their reactions.
“If you’re not getting a good response,” Nelson said, “it might be a really good indicator that you need to change your tactics, instead of pushing.”
This holiday season, Autumn Smith’s family continues to draw strength from one another and find comfort in the support of a strong community network.
“We’re not alone, thankfully,” Glotzbach said. “We’re a family, and we are here for each other. We’re fortunate. We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support.”
They also are finding strength in their shared faith, even if they don’t understand how something as horrible as the death of child could have happened.
“I don’t know how someone can get through something like this without believing in God or believing in a higher power, because there is nothing worse than the loss of a child or a grandchild,” Glotzbach said. “You can go down the path of despair and bitterness, or you can go down the path of hope and support and knowing that Autumn was part of our lives and we had the gift of knowing her. She’s in a better place now, but her spirit is still with us.”
Dealing with a loss of any kind can take time. It really is a process. And there are no shortcuts.
“I don’t think you can measure how much a person can hurt, or that someone hurts more than someone else,” Glotzbach said. “Everybody hurts in a different way; everybody grieves in a different way. It takes time.”
-- Jeff Burkhead is communications specialist at Bert Nash Mental Community Health Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.