A few weeks ago, I had the honor of participating in the IndyBar’s memorial service to celebrate the lives and careers of those members of our legal community who passed away during the prior year. It was a wonderful service attended by several family members of the honorees.
I spoke with a few of the family members after the service and they shared how this year, the holiday season was going to be different. For the first time, they would have to navigate the holiday season without the presence of their loved one. I felt my heart lurch during the conversation, as I too am going to be celebrating the holidays for the first time without my mom. It is hard to put into words, but when I think about the upcoming holidays, there is just an empty spot in my heart where it used to be full.
I know that there are several members of our legal community who have experienced the loss of a loved one or cherished colleague and for whom the upcoming holiday season will be different and difficult. So, in support of the IndyBar’s continued focus on attorney wellness, I reached out to Loretta Oleksy, Deputy Director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) and asked her if she had any ideas she could offer to help people who may be grieving or struggling during the holiday season. As expected, Loretta had lots of helpful information to share.
Loretta reminded me that grief and the stress of the holidays can magnify each other. The holidays are stressful under the best of circumstances as many of us have a picture in our heads of the “perfect” family holiday and it rarely turns out that way. Loretta explained that some of the general tips she gives people at the holidays apply to grief as well: we have to manage our expectations and let go of that “perfect” vision so that we can take away some of the pressure and allow ourselves to just be.
Specifically, Loretta offered the following suggestions for managing grief and the stress of the holidays:
Pick a tradition that reminds you of your loved one and carry it on. Loretta’s mom made a red velvet cake for dessert. She’s been gone 20 years now and Loretta still makes red velvet cake with her recipe every Christmas.
Have a Plan B, and give yourself permission to use it. It’s important to try to participate in holiday celebrations, but recognize ahead of time that family gatherings may be hard and it’s ok if you need to leave early or limit the number of gatherings you attend. Sometimes just knowing that you have an alternate plan if it gets to be too much can help ease the anxiety of the situation.
Start new traditions. Loretta explained that the year her dad died, her mom didn’t want to celebrate Christmas. The compromise was that they took a vacation at Christmas that year and celebrated in a different manner and location. I know that my family also is currently discussing how we can start a new tradition this year. We haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but we have at least started the conversation.
Be honest with those around you if you need a break at work. Most legal professionals are extremely busy during year-end. This additional work stress, combined with the stress of the holidays and grief, can make some days seem completely overwhelming. Talk to your trusted co-workers and let them know if you need to stop taking new clients for a few weeks or if you need to hand off a few hearing dates. It is much better to let go of some responsibilities than to take on too much and make a mistake that could negatively impact your client and your legal career.
Get professional help if you need it. Needing to talk to someone isn’t a sign of weakness, and you don’t have to have a diagnosis to talk to a counselor. Often when we are grieving we are also supporting others who are grieving the same loss. Having someone who is there just to support us is important. My family is working with a grief share program at my dad’s church, and they are presenting a special program on strategies for coping with the holidays.
Remember that JLAP is available to help you through the rough moments. JLAP is free and confidential. It can provide referrals for counseling and there are staff members and volunteers who have experienced loss who can help support you through the grieving process.
I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season. And for those of you who will be experiencing a different holiday season this year, I hope this information is helpful and that you find some peace and joy in the holiday memories of your loved ones.