In August of 2014, Roy Cross gave his wife a kiss goodbye before leaving for a motorcycle ride with a friend. Several hours later she got a call that there had been an accident.
“I was just expecting maybe a broken arm,” said Susan Berck-Cross of Niantic, “or maybe he just needed a new pair of jeans.”
But shortly after arriving at the hospital, she realized that it was significantly more serious. Her husband had been thrown from his motorcycle and had suffered multiple severe injuries, including a skull fracture and a bleed in his brain.
There was even worse news. During a scan to determine the extent of Roy’s brain injuries, a mass was discovered. A subsequent biopsy revealed cancer and the prognosis was that he had less than a year to live.
“My world just shattered into a million pieces,” she said.
It took months of rehabilitation and physical therapy before Roy recovered enough to regain such basic skills as eating and speaking. As he improved, the cancer was intensifying.
“There was one weekend in the fall where he and I actually had an almost normal conversation,” said Berck-Cross. “I realize now that this was a gift from God [because], soon after, he declined rapidly and I, again, lost him as the tumor grew and his pain increased.”
In February, Roy, 57, died in his wife’s arms.
Berck-Cross says she doesn’t know how she has survived the past nine months and soon it’ll be the holidays.
“We had traditions and now, all of a sudden, those things are gone,” she said. “Every Christmas Eve we would watch ‘A Christmas Carol’ together. We’ve been doing it for 20 years. This year, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
For many people like Berck-Cross who’ve lost someone close, grief can be especially profound at a time when families and friends come together to celebrate.
“Holidays bring out the sad in us,” said Cyndia Shook, LCSW, and bereavement coordinator at the Center for Hospice Care in Norwich, which offers grief support programs, including one specifically designated for the holidays.
That “sad,” she said, is often related to the many holiday-time rituals established among friends and families. Carving the Thanksgiving turkey, lighting the Menorah or picking out a Christmas tree have deep significance for many people, and when someone dies, it alters the season.
There are other triggers as well. Holiday cards, music and even television commercials showing scenes of happy, intact families, can cause feelings of grief and sadness for those mourning.
Sometimes it can be as random as standing in a grocery store aisle and being reminded of something a loved one used to buy or hearing a certain song on the radio, said Shook.
“You can’t really even pinpoint it. You think you’re OK, then the holidays come and you’re not. Everything is about the holidays and you can’t get away from it. And the person you’d normally go to isn’t there anymore.”
Shook also said that people can continue to have “grief moments” years after a loss when they are reminded of that person. “Think of grief as something that bubbles below the surface and then something brings it to the surface.”
It can be overwhelming, and Shook recommends that grieving people make a point of taking care of themselves. And if that means avoiding certain gatherings, changing long-held traditions or taking some space, that’s OK.
“There’s no right or wrong way. There’s your way. Sometimes it may not go over so well with other people in the family,” she said, “but just say, ‘Here’s what I need to do.'”
Andrea Lucibello, the coordinator of bereavement services for Yale-New Haven Hospital, agrees that there’s no single way to cope with loss during the holidays and encourages people to do what feels right to them.
“I tell people to think about what traditions they want to keep and what they might want to change,” said Lucibello. “For some folks, having a holiday tradition might just be too painful. When people are grieving, it takes a lot of energy and they are emotionally exhausted.”
Because of that, she encourages them not to overdo it or to get caught up in “should” statements like, “I should bake cookies,” or “I should send out cards.”
Instead, she recommends scaling back if necessary and suggests participating in rituals that honor their loved one like using the money that would have been spent on a gift as a donation to a favorite charity, preparing a favorite dish, lighting a candle or simply sharing a memory.
“Rituals can heal,” she said, “and allow the person to honor their feelings.”
It’s also important that friends and other family members recognize how difficult it is for someone going through a loss and to be understanding and supportive.
“Listening is an incredible gift you can give someone who is grieving,” said Lucibello. “And not to feel like you need to give advice.”
In fact, advice or well-meaning statements like “time will heal” and “they are no longer suffering” might not help at all. Lucibello said that a better choice is to simply ask someone how they are doing. She added that continuing to reach out is important, especially as time goes on. “Be present about a month after everything gets quiet; people are still grieving. Invite someone out for coffee or dinner. Or bring them dinner.”
Most important, perhaps, is that people don’t avoid those grieving a loss or avoid talking to them about it because it feels uncomfortable, said Shook.
Instead, she suggests acknowledging that it’s a difficult time by saying something like, “I know Christmas is coming and I’m sure you miss your husband” or “I’m thinking of you.”
And, she said, letting someone know you remember their loved by sharing a memory or story can also help.
It’s what Berck-Cross hopes people will do for her.
“I ask people to please not shy away when I say my husband’s name,” she said, “or if I want to tell a story about him. And I ask them to please share their stories.
“I think us grieving people have to let others know that we want to talk about our loved ones. My husband is with me every single day. I still talk to him and he’s a part of my life. I don’t want him to be forgotten.”