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Live with Purpose - December 19, 2019

Keeping the Holidays Joyful in Times of Grief and Loss

By Kathie Miller

No matter what holidays we celebrate, the time from Thanksgiving to the New Year often tends to be one of joyful gatherings. The calendar’s final six weeks can contain more social engagements than we’ve seen all year. We come together as friends, families and colleagues.  Even among strangers, we might be more likely to hold a door, share a smile or exchange greetings of “Happy Holidays!”

This year, as the season of joy approached, I found myself feeling unsettled. Normally, I look forward to the holidays. But 2019 has been far from normal.

This has been a year of significant loss for my family and me. Four loved ones passed in the course of nine short months. As I write that sentence, I realize there is perhaps some irony or symbolism that I hadn’t noticed before—in the amount of time it takes to bring new life into the world, we experienced four deaths. The youngest of our loves lost was 77; everyone else was 80 or better. While we were sad to say our final good-byes, we also celebrated four amazing individuals who lived well, lived fully and lived long.

With the holidays upon us, I found myself more acutely aware of the losses we carry with us into these seasons of joy. I also became more aware of how those losses can accumulate over time, as we age. One blog post puts it this way “It is a bit of a paradox that the more successful you are at healthy aging and achieving longevity, the more death will be a part of your life experiences.”

Coping with Grief and Loss

As we write for The Good Life, we often seek to cite research. Like our readers, we’re curious about what experts have to say about the topics we cover. When I offered to write about grief and loss at the holidays, I expected to find so much research that I might find it difficult to select a handful of resources to cite. Turns out, I was mistaken.

Most of the research sources I could find seemed dated. The most useful current research I discovered was from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. What I read here was comprehensive and diverse, addressing various types of grief, explaining treatments and identifying differences in children, as well as cross-cultural responses. While this clinical perspective was helpful, I wanted more personal insights.

Tips from Trusted Goodwin Living Colleagues

For those, I turned to trusted colleagues. One benefit of working at an organization such as Goodwin Living is that you find yourself surrounded by knowledgeable social workers and chaplains, all gifted in providing support at times like these.

Barbara Fornoff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who works at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads (GHBC). She offered this advice: “Stay busy giving service to others. There is no greater way to honor those lost than to pay forward the blessings they gave you. It helps me to think of the intangible gifts those I have lost gave me.” Barbara also shared, “The Haven of Northern Virginia has been helping with loss and grief for many years.” Adding to this local resource, Goodwin House Alexandria Director of Social Work Monica Hutchins-Thomas mentioned the Wendt Center in Washington, D.C. where you can seek help in healing.

The Rev. Theresa M. Brion serves as director of chaplaincy services at GHBC. She provided this wonderful list of tips:

  • Be good to yourself and remember that you have the right and the authority to say “no” and “yes” to invitations.
  • Remember that grief and loss come even from happy events—a marriage of a child, a new grandchild, etc.—any event that results in a change in a relationship can feel like a loss. So, do not feel like you alone in your grief. Think “outside the box” in establishing new friendships and alliances with others who may also be experiencing grief or loss.
  • Allow yourself to cry.
  • Journal your thoughts and/or write a letter to the person whom you miss, place it in an envelope and box for reading if and when ready.
  • Join a closed group Facebook or a local or online support group where you can share and listen with others.
  • Remember that each person has a different source for feeding the soul. It might be poetry, short stories, meditations, movie-watching, etc. Find what works for you.

Liz Pomerleau is the director of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Goodwin Living Incorporated. She shared this keen insight: “Although often hidden, grief and loss are just as much a part of the holiday season as happiness and celebration. Although no one can take away the losses we carry, the burden is lightened when we share our truth with others.”

As I make my way through this season, the first without four cherished loved ones, I am grateful to these colleagues and to all those who surround me every day at Goodwin Living. In times like these, in both sadness and joy, community is key. Thinking of the nine months of loss in my own personal life this year, perhaps the symbolism is quite simply that death is part of life. And as with all stages of life, it is something to be shared, honored and in our own individual way, celebrated.


As Corporate Director of Marketing & Communications, Kathie Miller provides strategic guidance and tactical support for all areas of Goodwin Living. She writes, edits and manages The Good Life blog and newsletter. Kathie joined GHI in 2014 after nearly 15 years at NPR, where she honed her skills in brand and reputation management, content marketing and internal communications. Originally from Pennsylvania, Kathie has slowly come to realize she’s lived in Arlington for more than half her life and should call herself a Virginian. She enjoys the outdoors and brings her rescue dog, Remi, to work every day.


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