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A Bloomington woman offers guidance for making space for grief during the holidays

Jose Luis Magana

Grief is a complicated emotion. It can be especially difficult to navigate around the holidays, when cheer and celebration are in full swing. People who are experiencing loss during the holidays may feel pressure not to burden others amid the festivities of the season.

“There’s a lot of fear of bringing other people down. Nobody wants to be the sad one in the room,” said Sarah Nannen.

Nannen founded the Center for Grief and Growth after losing her husband in 2014. Just 32 at the time and the mother of young children, she realized she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as the archetype of a “grieving widow.” So Nannen, who lives in Bloomington, sought a way to carve a path through her grief.

Sarah Nannen
Sarah Nannen

Part of that journey involved finding ways to incorporate grieving into living. For Nannen, that means making space for grief rather than repressing or denying it. She said the kindest thing to do during the holidays is to include both the person and their grief in celebrations. Nannen recently wrote a “Holiday Grief Survival Guide” that offer tips and support for making it through the season.

It’s easy to assume that grieving people want privacy, but Nannen said that’s one of the biggest misconceptions we have in our culture. The well-intentioned instinct to give a person space to grieve can make end up making them feel excluded. “And that hurts probably the most,” Nannen said.

So, extend the invitation, Nannen said. And try to do so without worrying whether or not it will be accepted. Simply being “included and remembered makes a huge impact on our ability to feel well and loved. Even if we choose not to go,” Nannen said.

And if a grieving person does accept the invitation, it’s important to acknowledge that their grief will be in attendance, too.

“I think it's really important to honor their grief and to expect it to be there without making it awkward," Nannen said. Be responsive to what the person is communicating and adjust accordingly. They may need a hug or a quiet room to gather themselves. Nannen said the important thing is to stay attuned and open.

“Don't go into it thinking that there's something you need to do, to fix to rescue them from, but rather really companion them through it and embrace them the whole person that's there not just their grief,” Nannen said.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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