Families talk ways to not let grief cloud Christmas joy

Calvert Funeral Home in West Point and other funeral homes across the region erect a special tree each year at Christmas with ornaments bearing the names of people's loved ones who have passed on.
Staff Writer

From a distance, they look like pretty angel ornaments on a Christmas tree. But as the visitor draws closer, it's obvious they are more, much more. They are a hello, a memory, a goodbye, an embrace, a cherished memory and most of all, one of many ways people grieve at this time of year.

Christmas and the holidays surrounding it are filled with joy. But for individuals and families who've lost a loved one in the last year, that first Christmas without that person brings a huge void often filled with sadness.

That's why Calvert Funeral Home in West Point and other funeral homes across the region erect a special tree -- Tree of Memories -- each year at Christmas with ornaments bearing the names of people's loved ones who have passed on. A special service, this one Tuesday night, gives families dealing with the same emotions a chance to share with each other.

The Ayres family has two ornaments on Calvert's tree, symbolic of what has been a "really difficult year."

"The ornaments help let them know they are with us, that we miss them. It's part of the process for us," explained Clay County resident Ann Ayres who lost her husband, Billy, Jan. 19 and her daughter, Amanda, Feb. 15.

"We were always together," she said of her husband.

"Being in this business, I thought I was strong," Calvert's director, Tyler Higginbotham, told family members to open Tuesday night's event. But when we buried my Aunt Lou on Aug. 12, it was the hardest day of my life, seeing by beloved grandparents struggle with the loss of their daughter. This is our chance to celebrate lives and grieve together."

Experts say everyone grieves differently and that it is an important part of getting over loss and moving on while not losing the love and memories associated with the departed. At this time of year, balancing those issues can be particularly difficult.

"There's plenty of stress already at this time of year, money, whether gifts are right, getting shopping done, all those things. It's important that people find healthy ways to mix the joys of Christmas with those sad feelings," noted John McLendon, the supervisor at the West Point office of Community Counseling Services and former case manager in West Point and therapist in Starkville.

"You've got years of memories and now the person is gone. It can be difficult. My best advice initially is to seek support from family and friends, people who will truly listen to you and what you are going through. Don't hold it back. The old line about how time heals all wounds doesn't really work all the time," he added.

"There's not really any way to prepare for it. Everyone grieves differently," said Judy Northington, Ayres' sister.

"I was sort of numb for weeks. That first Christmas was tough," said Dick Rogers, who lost his mother three weeks before Christmas five years ago. "We tried to stay busy, share the memories of her. In some ways, it happening so close to Christmas may have made it easier in some ways. If it had happened earlier in the year, we would have had to relive it all over again that first Christmas.

"More than anything, it's great to be blessed with wonderful friends and family. At first, it was hard to reach out to people but once I did, it has been comforting," Ayres said, praising her "wonderful" church family for its support.

Conversations, while they may sound odd, are soothing.

"I talk to pictures, I go to the cemetery as often as I can. It's been helpful," Ayres said.

"I talk to flowers in the flower bed because that's something she used to do. It helps be a part of her, a part of having her there. I still go talk to mom and dad at the cemetery," Rogers added. "It's a way of remembering. It makes me happy because I think they are listening."

Every person is different, but McLendon says some things can help avoid grief turning into debilitating, unhealthy depression:

-- Don't hold it in or bottle up the feelings and emotions;
-- Tell stories and share pictures and memories of the loved one;
-- Find someone who really listens and don't be afraid to lean on them;
-- Don't feel like you have to "hurry up and get over it";
-- While they may not be for everyone, take part in events with others who are going through the same feelings of loss.

"And as much as anything, if you really feel like you can't handle it, call someone, call a professional, call us or someone. It's OK to feel that way," he concluded.