June Leffler Published

Q&A: Coping With Grief During The Holidays


The holiday season can be challenging for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, said retired hospice counselor and chaplain Craig Falkenstine. He and others started the non-profit West Virginia Family Grief Center twenty years ago to help West Virginians understand what grief is and how to process it. The grief center offers bereavement group sessions and individual support. It’s number is (304)-282-4935.

Health reporter June Leffler spoke with Falkenstine earlier this month.

June Leffler: I’m wondering how would you describe grief? How do you define it?

Craig Falkenstine: Some people identify it with a primary loss when they lose a loved one. It’s real obvious there’s grief. Even in our world we’ve been through with lockdowns and isolation, there’s a lot of losses that go on there. Anytime you have any kind of loss in life attached to that is grief. Especially at Christmas time, it becomes intense. And people often don’t know how to deal with it.

Leffler: You said the holidays can be an intense time for people that are grieving. Why is that? And what does it look like?

Falkenstine: When you have a holiday coming up, when it’s usually a strong family time and you have a lot of wonderful memories attached to it, the anticipation of this holiday becomes worse than the actual holiday experience. In other words, they dread it. People that have lost major people in their life that have previously been a part of the holidays, they suddenly begin to have this dread. That dread can overwhelm them.

It’s a matter of processing that grief. Grief is the emotion that’s inside. But the tricky part is being able to mourn, being able to express that. And that’s bringing what’s inside outside of us. But grief is something that you have to work through. And the other aspect of grief is the fact that you have to realize that you don’t get over your grief. A lot of people will mean well and tell people “Aren’t you over that yet, aren’t you over your grief?”. But the thing is, we never get over our grief, it just changes perspective.

Grief is like a huge mountain. When we’re at the base of this mountain, it’s overwhelming. It’s huge. But as we move away from it, like we were walking or driving in a car, and we stop and we look back at that mountain, it’s the same mountain. It is being able to take on a new perspective.

I tell folks, the primary way we deal with that is over the lips, or through the fingertips. In other words, we learn to talk about it, we have to be able to talk about our grief to be able to process it. Other than talking about it, sometimes you have to write about it. I tell a lot of folks it’s important for them to learn to journal.

Leffler:  What more can you say about things that are healthy, that are part of the grieving process, and things that might not be healthy?

Falkenstine: Grieving is not a lone ranger activity. A lot of people want to close themselves up and stay isolated and just feel like they’re losing their mind sometimes. And that’s sometimes a normal grief reaction. Some people think that they just want to avoid everything, they just want to work so hard that they just avoid what’s going on. Well, that grief will follow you. Even many people who didn’t work through it at some time in their life, 10 or 20 years later, it can still come back to them and they have to learn to process it. A lot of times people think that our emotions are like a hot stove. You touch it and say “I’m not touching that again.” We think our emotions are the same way, just because they’re hot and raw. And we think “Oh, we’re not going there.” We’re not going to, but that’s precisely what you need to do. And one important thing that people need to realize is that they have a need to talk. The biggest support anyone can ever do for someone who’s grieving is to be a listening ear, and listen and listen some more, even if they hear the same story 12 million times.

Leffler: I’m just wondering if you could give some examples of how somebody that’s grieving might best reach out to somebody without feeling like they’re being bothersome.

Falkenstine: That does happen. When people ask “How are you today?” always our first response is “Oh, I’m fine.” Well, sometimes with a trusted friend you have to say “I’m not fine. I really need to talk about this.” A lot of times I’ve noticed people wait till they get into a crisis before they reach out for help. Sometimes as I’ve sat down and people in crisis and we begin to work through it, you realize that had they just been able to talk this through with people it would have gotten a lot better for them. It wouldn’t have done so much harm. But for some people they don’t know what to do so they don’t do anything. And even people trying to support someone, they just don’t know what to say or do so they don’t do anything either. But it’s a matter of reaching out and saying “Would you like to talk?” Little things like that mean a lot to people.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.