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Posted at 11:53 AM ET, 12/04/2012

Bowie counselor gives tips on managing grief during the holidays in wake of teenagers’ slayings

Amber Stanley was slain in Prince George's County in August. (Prince George's public schools)
When a friend of mine mentioned that her son was having a hard time coping with the loss of their neighbor, a young man who was recently shot to death, I was reminded of the family, friends and neighbors who will be missing two high school students killed in separate incidents a few months ago. Police have no arrests in either case. Markel Ross of Central High School and Amber Stanley of Flowers will be sorely missed at holiday celebrations.

Losing a loved one to disease and old age is hard enough. Losing a loved one in an instant through an accident or murder is all the more devastating. I called a grief counselor for tips on handling grief through the holidays.

 “It’s something that affects a lot of people. There’s no right way or wrong way to handle it. It’s all individual,” said Wendy Wilcox, a Bowie-based youth and family counselor. She recommended a bereavement camp for kids offered by the Hospice of the Chesapeake and a grief recovery support group at Grace Baptist Church in Bowie which meets the second and fourth Tuesday each month, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Elizabeth Ross mourns the loss of her 18-year-old son, Markel, who was fatally shot Sept. 11 in Capitol Heights. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
“It’s normal to feel overwhelmed for a number of years after a significant loss, and everyone’s different,” Wilcox said. “Each person has their own timetable to adjust to all the changes that go along with a big loss. If there are complications — you’re unable to eat and sleep, or thinking of suicide — that’s an emergency. If you’re unable to get up and go to work long-term, then it would be important to talk to a therapist.” offers several practical tips for bereavement recovery, including these: “Recognize your loved one’s presence in the family. Burn a special candle to quietly include your loved one. Hang a stocking for your loved one in which people can put notes with their thoughts or feelings. Listen to music especially liked by the deceased. Look at photographs.” Griefnet also recommends: “Don’t be afraid to have fun. Give yourself and your family permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays.”

Talking about the loss, whether with friends and family or in support groups, “normalizes what people are going through,” Wilcox said. “It let’s them know that there’s a beginning, a middle and a time when you can start looking forward to normalcy again.”

 When my dad and best friend died within a week during the holiday season in 2010, instinctively, I bought a plant in honor of each of them. I delighted in watering the plants and watching them grow soaked in sunlight that poured through the bay window where they stood. They have become beautiful, towering indoor trees that I continue to enjoy, knowing full well that someday I may have to return them to the earth.

 My family has established new holiday traditions — smaller, more informal get-togethers. This year, my sisters included a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood before our pre-Thanksgiving dinner, and my brother who hosted the Thanksgiving Day feast (for those not dining with in-laws) restored the tradition of a prompt, appointed mealtime but honored our generation’s fluidity by not assigning seats. You could even stand and chew and chat.

Families who lost loved ones to violence this year, such as Ross’s and Stanley’s, face considerably more pain and sadness. What do you do with the love you would have lavished on a teenage daughter or son around this time? How can a community wrap its arms around those families at such a time as this? Here’s hoping that they will get calls of well wishes and invitations to engaging activities. Here’s hoping churches in their communities will lift them in prayer.

 The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization offers the following tips on its Web site:

 1) Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Some may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to change their rituals. Remember, there is no right way or wrong way to handle the holidays.

 2) Offer to help the person with baking and/or cleaning. Both tasks can be overwhelming when someone is experiencing acute grief.

 3) Offer to help him or her decorate for the holidays.

 4) Offer to help with holiday shopping or give your loved one catalogs or suggest online shopping sites that may be helpful.

 5) Help your loved one prepare and mail holiday cards.

 6) Invite the person to attend a religious service with you and your family.

7) Invite your loved one to your home for the holidays.

8) Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holiday season. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at soup kitchens or working with children, may help your loved one feel better about the holidays.

9) Donate a gift or money in memory of the person’s loved one. Remind the person that his or her special person is not forgotten.

10) Never tell someone that he or she should be “over it.”  Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.

11) If he or she wants to talk about the deceased loved one or feelings associated with the loss, LISTEN. Active listening from friends is an important step to helping him or her heal. Don’t worry about being conversational … just listen.

12) Remind the person you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch.

Montgomery is a columnist for The RootDC.

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