Following the holidays, accentuated grief is normal

Posted 1/20/21

It’s been nearly five years since her son, Zafer Estill, died, but this year, Tami Schwerin still put up his stocking, along with her Christmas tree.

Her family labored over what to put in the …

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Following the holidays, accentuated grief is normal

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It’s been nearly five years since her son, Zafer Estill, died, but this year, Tami Schwerin still put up his stocking, along with her Christmas tree.

Her family labored over what to put in the stocking. Eventually, they decided to add in letters.

“No one tells you what to do with that stocking,” Schwerin said. “The holidays do kind of give a focus on it because that’s typically when you’re all together. And it’s difficult.”

Like Schwerin, many people struggle with the heaviness of grief that seems to intensify during the holidays. And while Schwerin said she can lean on several friends who’ve also lost children, the season is still always a particularly challenging one.

“It’s the worst of the worst — I can’t think of anything worse,” she said. “But it’s also a time to remember all the good times, when you can bring up the pictures, and they’re on my tree. There’s little baby pictures of my kids. It’s great, and I cherish those, and it’s also so hard to look at them.”

Even during a normal year, the holidays can accentuate grief, said licensed clinical mental health counselor Michelle Moseley, particularly because of the emphasis on spending time with family or reflecting on memories. But during a pandemic, that grief is compounded for many people.

“With this year, with so many other and additional types of grief ...” said Moseley, who works in Lee County. “Folks are very emotionally drained from this. You know, as humans, we were not designed to go through long-term stressors. And with the pandemic, if you have suffered from loss and death and sickness in your family, that’s a stressor.”

“And if you haven’t suffered from those specific things,” she added, “we have all been going through this 10-month stressor together.”

For Tania Hernandez, whose brother, Ramon, died on Dec. 20 after being shot, not being able to be with all her family made grieving through the holidays even more of a challenge. She had COVID-19 in April, so she said she’s been dealing with the pandemic since the beginning.

“I come from a very cultural family, in which gatherings are a big, big must for graduations, for birthday parties, holidays, you name it,” she said. But COVID-19 restrictions coupled with the loss of her brother, made for a traumatic holiday season.

“It’s completely destroyed… I don’t think any Christmas is going to mean the same,” she said. “I didn’t even feel Christmas go by. I didn’t feel the days go by — if it was a Friday, I didn’t know.”

New Year’s Eve is typically Hernandez’s favorite holiday to celebrate; this year she went to sleep by 11 p.m. She woke up to the sound of fireworks and sparklers — a sound that brought painful memories to mind, reminding her of the shooting that killed her younger brother.

“This past holiday was just not the greatest,” she said. “New Year’s is destroyed for me and Christmas is just remembering an event that has not ended.”

Hernandez said it’s been most helpful to not be left alone as she grieves, though she feels she is still very early in the process. Schwerin echoed this sentiment, saying it’s important to find ways to connect with loved ones as you grieve, even if it looks different this year.

For Schwerin, the smaller gatherings brought about a sense of “intimacy and simplicity” that made the holidays this year much better than she’d anticipated. She is the founder of Abundance NC, a Chatham organization that hosts the annual Death Faire event, which aims to educate about grief support, healing and different cultural beliefs around death and dying.

She said this year’s event, held on Oct. 31 with COVID-19 protocols in place, emphasized the importance of facing grief head on, particularly in a year marked by sickness, political corruption and racial injustices and upheaval.

“It’s just devastating and so sad,” she said of current events in mid-December. “And I think there’s a grief that our country has come to this … I’m hopeful that we’re gonna get through this, but I think addressing grief all the time is so important. And we’ve got to keep this front and center because it’s the root of so many things.”

Moseley emphasized that grief is different for everyone, and that there is no correct progression of “stages of grief” to go through. She encouraged checking in with what you need: sometimes as simple as exercise or sleep, other times a bigger need, like asking a friend for help or investing in therapy. Moseley also stressed the importance of loved ones checking in with people after their initial loss, and respecting what others need from you.

Sometimes, that can mean checking in with a friend, while other times it can mean letting a person have the time and space to grieve alone. It’s also important, particularly in the Bible Belt, Moseley said, to not impose your own spiritual language on someone, as that can feel dismissive of the grief a person is experiencing.

“Grief can really be seen as being connected to how much you loved and valued the person or the experience, how important whatever it was you lost is to you is, because we grieve people and things that are important to us,” she said. “The cliche that time heals all wounds is not really true — time changes the wounds, and you figure out how to move forward and adapt to that loss in your life, but that’s still part of your story, and it doesn’t go away.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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