East End Hospice Offers Advice On Navigating Grief, Finding Hope Throughout The Holidays

Jean Behrens, the adult bereavement coordinator at East End Hospice, lights candles in memory of her loved ones during the holidays.

As a fairly new social worker at the time, Jean Behrens approached the first Thanksgiving after her father died about three decades ago with the best of intentions.

She imagined her family would share their fondest memories around the dinner table: “I was gonna make everybody talk about him,” she recalled.

And when her mother and brothers rejected her idea, she was crushed.

But, in hindsight, and now with over 30 years of experience in private practice, she understands why.

Because the holiday season often marks a time spent with loved ones, it can be especially painful when one of them is absent — whether it’s a spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, or even a pet — leaving an irreparable hole in any given gathering.

Holiday grief takes on different forms, often amplified and expressed through a complicated range of emotions, explained Behrens, who works with those left behind as the adult bereavement coordinator at East End Hospice in Westhampton Beach.

“In normal times, people start to talk about the holidays in October,” she said. “In this world, the squirming started in September. People started to talk about it, and the discomfort is huge. The discomfort is so much bigger now because of COVID.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus left a level of grief and trauma in its wake that bereavement specialists had never seen before, Behrens said. Nearly two years later, it has morphed into a “malaise,” she explained, an acceptance of a lower level of happiness, or quality of life. With it has come frustration and anger, but also intense gratitude, she said, which can create a “psychotic feeling.”

“We’re all living in trauma, and the people who are grieving in the trauma, it’s almost too much for them,” she said. “It’s almost too much for their hearts and their brains, and the natural response to grief is to try to think through it, and talk through it, and it’s simply not enough. It just isn’t going to work.”

In response, East End Hospice has incorporated new therapy modalities into its bereavement work, including music and writing therapies, guest speakers, energy work, and group sessions — both general and specific to the loss of a child or spouse — at Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue in Riverhead.

“The activities that we do with the horses are really experiential for the people,” Behrens said. “Between the bereavement piece that we bring and the equine piece, it’s just a little bit of magic.”

Last month, about 50 people participated in the annual seminar, “Hope for the Holidays,” over Zoom, which reminded them that the holidays can still be a time of celebration even through grief, said Behrens, who led the program in partnership with Peconic Bay Medical Center. Together, they discussed meaningful ways to ease heartache during the holiday season, as well as coping mechanisms to use at gatherings.

“There’s this intense frustration about the holidays when it’s your first holiday without your person,” Behrens said. “Around the holidays, we talk a lot about giving yourself permission to reframe what things are ‘supposed to look like,’ because they used to look that way.”

She also encourages people to allow themselves to feel what they’re feeling, even if it’s two conflicting emotions at once — for example, joy while seeing a grandchild’s face light up while opening a present, and sadness that a loved one is not there to share in it. Try to avoid secondary hard feelings — like anger at that sadness, Behrens said — by fully embracing the primary feeling.

“It can be a tangled ball of emotions,” she said. “You can feel all these different feelings at the same time. We’re all programmed to think that you should only feel one thing, but there’s all these feelings that come up all at the same time, and it’s such a mess — and it’s important to acknowledge them all and embrace it for what it is. It’s a lot more energy to push away how hard it is.”

One way to process upcoming holiday events, and the feelings that may accompany them, is to make lists in specific categories, such as food, decorations, events and traditions, and think about how it would feel to do those things, versus not, and then make a plan.

“You can change your plan, but you need to have a plan,” Behrens said. “If you go into the day very nebulously and upside down, it usually ends up to be a very difficult day. You’re better off to do something and do it for a little while and then go home, than to stay home and not do anything.”

Behrens emphasized that, when at a group gathering, there is nothing wrong with the “Irish goodbye” — slipping out quietly without saying goodbye to everyone — and encourages those grieving to drive themselves so they can leave if it feels overwhelming. Try to be present in the moment, she said, and don’t be afraid to either back away from a conversation about a loved one, or to start one.

“There are things that people might want to do just to remember their person and make them present in the room for them — just so they have the connection to them, so they don’t feel so empty and lost, like they’re totally missing them,” she said. “The connection is always there. They just have to make it.”

One of Behrens’s clients sets a place for her late husband at the table, she said. Another puts one of her father’s baseball caps on his chair. Many people light candles, a tradition that Behrens started for herself after that first Thanksgiving dinner without her dad.

Every year, before the day’s festivities begin, she walks over to her sideboard and lights a candle in his memory — followed by several more, each for a loved one she has lost in the decades since.

And in that ritual, she finds comfort and peace.

“Before the day starts, before my dinner, before I light the candles on my table, I light those candles,” she said, “and I have a moment with them.”