For those in grief at the holidays, there's help available
In a year full of loss, no time is more difficult than Christmas.
Westmoreland County lost two police officers in 2017 — one to a gunshot wound in November and one in an accident in July — and broke the 2016 record for opioid-related deaths.
Even events far away, such as a mass shooting in Las Vegas or a hurricane in Texas, touched Western Pennsylvanians who knew or were related to some victims.
It's no surprise, then, that there is an abundance of grief support groups in Westmoreland County — or that they fill up this time of year, mental health experts say.
A holiday that is so associated with family time already is difficult for those who have lost a relative, but especially on the first Christmas after the person's death, said Maureen Ceidro, Excela Health bereavement counselor.
“People are just trying to navigate how to do these things without their loved one,” she said. “That's the largest part of the struggle: do we do what we always did, or do we do something different?”
Ceidro and her colleague, Kristy Walter, lead several bereavement groups throughout the year for Excela Health Home Care & Hospice, including a men's group, a scrapbooking group, an art group and a book club.
“We will be doing 15 groups next year,” she said.
Starting in November, Excela offers a grief workshop to help people get through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, followed by several weeks of support-group sessions. Announcements are posted to the Excela Health website and Bereavement Support Facebook page.
Among the practical concerns that Ceidro and Walter frequently hear are:
• Not wanting to put up a Christmas tree or other decorations.
• Not wanting to go Christmas shopping.
• Not wanting to send Christmas cards or sign the loved one's name.
• Not wanting to cook or entertain guests.
• Not wanting to attend holiday parties.
Although such reactions are normal, people should not be afraid to ask for help, Ceidro said.
“If, this year, you don't want to do that traditional thing you've always done, you don't have to. Just follow your heart and your gut,” she said.
The Rev. John Smaligo, pastor of Harrold Zion Lutheran Church in Hempfield, understands the impulse to avoid Christmas services, which is why his church has offered a Blue Christmas Longest Night Service for the past five years.
This year's service, held Thursday evening, offered appropriate Scripture readings, prayers and hymns for people dealing with any type of loss, not just the death of a relative, he said.
“It depends on their situation in life. It could be unemployment, the loss of a relationship or health factors,” Smaligo said.
The opioid crisis has cast a pall over Christmas for drug addicts and their families, local experts say. This year, there have been 144 confirmed overdose deaths and 35 suspected overdoses awaiting test results, said Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha.
Among the services available is a Family Overdose Support Group offered by Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services Inc. at its Greensburg location, 203 S. Maple St.
For people in recovery, the sense of loss might come from having to give up toxic “people, places and things” and replace them with appropriate holiday outlets, said Jennifer Thomas, SPHS clinical supervisor.
“A lot of people try to do this alone (because) people have a lot of shame related to the things they've dealt with. It doesn't hurt to reach out,” Thomas said. “You try to get people to not isolate themselves during the holidays.”
Successfully getting through holidays without relapsing might depend on building a community of support through 12-step meetings, counseling and sober friends, she said.
“It seems like there's a real need to have more mental health support groups,” Thomas said.
People who deal with depression during the holidays often feel let down because their expectations, based on past holiday experiences, have not been met, said Dr. Paul Niemiec, director of counseling services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg.
“We aim for nostalgia, instead of looking around at what we have and accepting what we have,” he said. “Our expectations for a Norman Rockwell painting-type Christmas are so strong that we lose track of what's there.”
Although Catholic Charities does not have the staffing for support groups, its counseling intakes for the month of December have been the second-highest of the year, Niemiec said.
“What I think we see sometimes is a lack of connection. People's relationships with one another suffer for a variety of reasons,” he said. “One of the things that seems to be missing is a lack of deeper connection.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.