Arian Clements, a 44-year old mother of two from Brunswick lost her beloved father, Phillip Giantris, in October 2017. Giantris, a civil engineer who owned a consulting business in Albania, was traveling in the capital city of Tirana for work when he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 77.
Clements spent time supporting her grieving mother, Sally Giantris, during this period of grief and transition. After 52 years of marriage, her mom had grown accustomed to long-standing traditions, most especially holiday celebrations at the home she shared with her husband in Southport. In the months that followed, Clements remembers everyone in the family feeling adrift.
“All the joy and excitement that centered around the holidays was gone,” Clements said.
Carol Schoneberg is a grief counselor at Gosnell House, a hospice facility in Scarborough. She said this feeling is not at all uncommon.
“I have not met a grieving person, especially in that first year of loss, that doesn’t feel anxious about the holidays. There’s no escaping it,” Schoneberg said. To manage the overwhelming feelings that accompany grief, Schoneberg recommends some advance planning. “It’s important to ask yourself how will you remember your loved one throughout the day,” she said. “When the central griever, who is often the surviving parent, is willing to lead the way, the rest of the family will intuitively follow along by sharing their thoughts and feelings.”
Schoneberg said that while planning ahead for the holidays is important, families should check in with the central griever first. “It’s good to ask, ‘How can we make the holidays right for you?’” Schoneberg said. “Some might outwardly say, ‘I can’t host at my home or I can’t celebrate at all this year,’ and others might prefer to be alone. These sentiments can scare the people that love us, but it’s OK to be authentic in our grief.”
In Clements’ case, she decided to buck tradition and celebrate a combined Thanksgiving with her husband’s extended family at their home in Brunswick. Since the holiday occurred only a month after her father’s death, she admits to feeling dazed throughout the day, but the change of scenery, along with telling stories about her father, helped.
Christmas, however, proved to be more difficult. “It was a sad day for myself, my mother and sister. His unexpected death put some financial stress on the family. We decided to forget giving presents to each other, and just focused on gifts for the kids instead,” Clements said.
Clements’ decision to keep up holiday traditions with her young children is not uncommon for families who are grieving. Joel Wiggin, a grief counselor at Northern Light Health, a hospital and health care center in Bangor, said that Christmas can be challenging. “There is an expectation to be happy, especially when children are a part of the celebration,” Wiggin said.
He recommends doing something to honor the person who died, such as making a favorite dish the deceased enjoyed, passing around pictures or telling stories before gift-giving. “By not ignoring our grief, and acknowledging that someone we love has died, it clears the air in the room and allows us to enjoy the day,” Wiggin said.
Schoneberg agreed that creating simple, healing rituals can be powerful. She recommended placing a jar on the holiday table with paper and pen next to it, allowing for family to write what they’re missing most about the deceased. Before dinner, everyone can take turns reading the notes. “Some people know intuitively that sharing their memories can be soothing, but no one has to do this. It’s important to do whatever feels comfortable for you,” Schoneberg said.
Clements keeps her father’s memory alive by telling her 7- and 9-year-old daughters stories about their grandfather. She said her father often entertained the girls with silly jokes. “I’ll tell them, remember that one he told you about the boogers,” Clements said. “And the girls will giggle and say, ‘you know it!’”
Many hospice and health care centers offer free grief counseling for both the deceased families and members of the community who have lost a loved one. To access one-on-one counseling or a grief support group locally, contact Joel Wiggin at Northern Light Health in Bangor at jwiggin@northernlight or (207) 974-6242.