Coping with loss

Kathy Hulst and her husband Greg lead a group that supports parents who have lost children. The group called Compassionate Friends meet at St. Olaf Lutheran Church.

As the holidays near, many families struggle with memories of deceased loved ones

Seventeen years ago, tragedy struck Kathy and Greg Hulst.

“Our son was killed in 1995,” she said. “We were at a loss.”

The Hulsts soon found help, though. Compassionate Friends, a monthly gathering at St. Olaf Church for parents who have lost a child, provided them a place to empathize with other parents who had been through a similar tragedy. The group would end up staying a part of their lives to this day.

The Hulsts learned about the group when their son’s employer came to pay his regards.

“When he came to bring us our son’s last check, he told us about Compassionate Friends,” she said. “I hadn’t ever heard of it before that.”

The first meeting they attended was around this time of year. The first two to three years were especially rough for them, but they kept with the meetings.

“Being able to go to this group really held us up,” Kathy said.

It was around 2004 when the Hulsts took over as leaders of the group. For 13 years before that, Rod and Sandy Friedrich were the group’s leaders.

One mistake people tend to make when talking to parents grieving for their children is eventually they should just get over it, Kathy said

“Losing a child is something you never get over,” she said. Instead, the time after the loss is about figuring out a new way to live, without the son or daughter who used to be there.

Wayne McColley, who has attended meetings with his wife Ruth since February 1997, agrees.

“When you lose a child, you really have the feeling that this is something that only happened to you,” McColley said. “The first meeting, I wasn’t able to say one word. The more you can talk about it in a safe environment, it becomes easier to talk about it.”

The McColleys lost their oldest daughter in 1997. She was 27 years old at the time, and had two little girls. They went through court hearings to gain custody of the children, who needed parents after their father went to prison for selling drugs.

“Someone from Compassionate Friends every single time went with us to court,” McColley said. “It really helped us having someone else there that got a different perspective on it.”

Some of the children passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, while others were victims of drunken drivers or cancer. There’s also the misconception that parents are unwelcome at a support group if their child committed suicide, but Kathy said the group does not treat parents of a suicide victim any differently than anyone else.

“We’re not to judge,” she said.

The word “children” doesn’t always refer to young people, either. Parents who lose their adult sons and daughters also seek the group’s support.

“For a while we had parents of 50-year-old children,” Kathy said.

Meetings typically being by checking in on how everyone has been doing and asking about any concerns they have. Attendees learn from one another’s experiences, asking questions about how they made it through a certain point in their struggle, or how to answer a question like, “How many children do you have?”

New people at Compassionate Friends are welcome to talk if they like, or they can simply listen. Only once, Kathy said, did a person never speak at all. Regardless, she tries to make new people feel very comfortable. It’s all about supporting one another.

“We need to get somewhere and talk to someone who went through this so that we get through this day and the next day, and we’re not going crazy,” she said.

With the help of St. Olaf’s printing and labeling, she and Greg send out a newsletter every three months, so even people who no longer come to meetings can find solace from the group.

How long people stay with the group is entirely up to them. Some people stay for 20 years, while others only attend two or three meetings. Even if they were not the group’s leaders, Kathy said she and Greg would still attend meetings.

She hopes to get the group more exposure so people know it is an option open to them. She regularly looks at obituaries in the newspaper to keep an eye out for children who have recently passed away. If she finds one, she often looks up an address to send a note over to the family.

Typically, about 15-20 people show up for the Christmas meeting.

“We try to make the Christmas meeting more special,” she said, adding in previous years parents have lit candles for their children during the meeting.

Certain occasions that typically bring families can be especially tough times for parents who have lost a child.

“I think the holidays are really, really hard,” Kathy said. “Their birth date, their death date come … that’s when you see people need us more, too.”

Compassionate Friends meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month at St. Olaf Church.


Funeral homes guide mourners

Mary Kittelson knows the pain of losing a loved one doesn’t end at the funeral.

Kittelson, Worlein Funeral Home’s community services director, leads the Continuing Care program at Worlein. Following the funerals of their loved ones, she helps families with any questions or problems they have as they adjust to life without their departed.

“They’re very receptive to it,” she said. “Sometimes I think that people forget the funeral home can be a great resource to them.”

To help families, Kittelson suggests a variety of ways to remember their loved ones. Care notes, for example, are positive reminders of how to get through times of grieving that are small enough to fit in a purse and travel with a person. Another resource are books on starting new traditions, which may help people cope with missing the people who were integral parts of their old traditions.

There are also items geared toward children, Kittelson said, thanks to contributions from Lorene Ingvalson. She makes little bears to give as memorials to children, and around this time of year will decorate them like the holidays.

Worlein itself stays in touch with families for a year after their funeral engagements.

“We have a follow-up program here at the funeral home where we touch base with a card to let them know that we, too, remember they’ve lost someone close to them,” Kittelson said.

Sometimes a symbolic gesture is enough to recognize the memory of a deceased loved one. Some families prefer to set a place at the table for their departed during dinner, or place a wreath over their gravestones. “Memory boxes,” which house different objects that bring back fond recollections, are another idea.

While those who grieve for a loved one are often focused on that person, Kittelson said it is also important for people to stay focused on their own health. There are books that explain how to eat right, get enough rest and exercise to stay healthy during times of emotional stress.

In some cases, those thinking about someone they have lost find it helpful to arrange their own last wishes with the funeral home in advance. They can take some time to put down their own thoughts and preferences while the subject is on their mind.

The resources are not limited to the staff at the funeral home. Worlein contracts out a toll-free, 24/7 phone service called Caring Voices, which is staffed by professional grief counsellors with masters degrees in their field who are always on hand to offer help.

“It won’t cost them anything,” she said. “They will speak to a real live individual.”

Kittelson said it’s important for those grieving over a lost family member or loved one to know there’s somebody they can go to for help if they need it, especially as the holidays near.

“We’ve kind of set ourselves up to believe the holidays are supposed to be cheery and full of all good things,” she said. “That isn’t always the case.”

After the holidays, Worlein will hold a five-week winter support group on coping with grief, starting on Jan. 8.


Tips for managing grief during holidays

By Laura Hunsaker

Writer/bereavement counselor. Source: The Associated Press

For most people, the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year.” But those who are grieving the loss of a loved one may face pain and sadness in place of excitement. Even those for whom grief is not as fresh, the holidays can serve as an annual reminder of the loss — not only the person, but also of tradition and celebration. If you or someone you know is grieving this holiday season, here are some practical tips to consider:

• While holidays can be filled with meaning, they can also be filled with pressure, stress and a lot of decision-making. Focus on the projects that may bring the most pleasure. Perhaps the gift list can be pared, holiday cards don’t have to be sent or someone else can prepare the holiday meal.

• Holidays often center on traditions and rituals. For some, continuing these without a loved one may be an important way to share their memory. For others, it may be better to start new rituals to help lessen the pain. Again, do what feels right to you.

• If you are grieving, don’t forget to take care yourself. Set aside time to exercise, get plenty of rest and enjoy as much of a balanced diet as you can during the holidays.

• Remind yourself that it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to feel good. You are not disrespecting the memory of your loved one by enjoying the holidays. If you know someone who is grieving, never tell him or her that they should be “over it.” Give the person hope that eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.

• Find ways to remember your loved one in a way that’s personally meaningful. Share special stories about the person during a meal or make a donation to a charity that was important to your loved one.

• Consider volunteering during the holiday season. Doing something for someone else may help you feel better. During the holidays, there are numerous places to help – soup kitchens, food drives and collecting toys or other items to help brighten someone else’s holiday.

• It’s OK to talk about your loved one who is gone. You don’t have to pretend that nothing is different this year. As a friend to someone who is grieving, be a good listener. This is an important step in the healing process. You don’t need to worry about being conversational or “fix” anything, just listen.

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