By Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care
It’s February. The fa-la-las have finally faded, and the new year’s festivities are over. The twinkle lights and the tree have come down. As much joy as the winter holidays can bring, many people—especially those dealing with the loss of a loved one—breathe a sigh of relief when the celebrations are over.
Then, just when you think the complicated emotions of the holidays are behind you, up pop the hearts, flowers, cards, and advertisements for Valentine’s Day. The heightened and all-encompassing commercial emphasis on love and romance fills the aisles and airwaves. Valentine’s Day is hard to miss.
“No one escapes it. It’s everywhere, on television, at the movies, on store shelves, and in conversations. It’s not that those romantic notions aren’t lovely; they can be, but there are many people who are lonely because they don’t have that. Or they did have that, and now they are lonely because the person they love is no longer with them,” said Maria C., spiritual care coordinator at Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care.
As with other holidays, Valentine’s Day can stir up excitement, both joyful as well as painful. It’s a time to celebrate love, romance, and togetherness, but for those who are grieving loved ones, caring for loved ones on hospice, or those at the end of life, this time can be one of deep loneliness as they navigate feelings, expectations, and memories that often surround mourning and grief.
Spending time with people at the end of their life’s journey and with their caretakers and families, we at Old Colony and other hospice organizations see the depth of loneliness as well as the richness of the feelings brought on by grief and memories. It’s a personal journey, so everyone’s experience is different, but many people experience loneliness, especially in their later years.
“As we get older, loneliness can get even more complicated. From the mid-50s on, we’re dealing with a lot of loss and many transitions, including losing friends and family members who share some of your strongest memories,” said Vince C., a chaplain at OCH. “As the years go on, that loss continues and compounds.”
Maria C. and Vince C. said encouraging people to step back and choose how they would like to celebrate Valentine’s Day or any other holiday can be helpful.
“There’s a myth around what holidays are supposed to be, and that can make people feel even lonelier. You have to define it for yourself in a way that is meaningful for you and your mental health,” said Vince. C. “You can try to find the meaning that is positive in your feelings or your memories. You can also decide not to give it much meaning.”
If you are a friend of someone who may be grieving, be sensitive but don’t avoid them. Ask them what might help. Time alone? With friends? Try to understand if they change their minds along the way. Be flexible with them. Consider asking them to dinner or offering to share a quiet evening at home with them. But respect their decision if they prefer to do otherwise.
If you’re experiencing difficulty with a holiday, know that many others share that. Understand that you can choose to celebrate a holiday or not. Just because it is on the calendar does not mean you have to recognize it. Remember, not everyone celebrates every holiday anyway and you do not have to either.
You don’t have to put on a brave face, but it is also fine if you enjoy or find joy in this time. It is okay to stay home or join in with others. You might consider doing something fun and unrelated to the holiday, such as going to a community event, play, concert, or movie. You can choose to change your traditions or the people you focus on during this time. You might decide to honor someone you love by recognizing them in some way, such as putting flowers on a grave, spending time going through photographs, or making a donation in their memory to a charity that was meaningful to you both.
Sometimes, spending time with others going through similar experiences is helpful. Many groups offer grief support, and we at OCH also provide bereavement support to our patients. We also organize free support groups for community members thanks to generous contributions from our donors. We encourage you to reach out if you would like more information by calling (781) 341-4145 or visiting www.oldcolonyhospice.org.
Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, is the President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care of West Bridgewater, a dynamic non-profit hospice serving more than 55 communities south of Boston. OCH also runs the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree. A native and resident of the South Shore, Toni brings her compassion and experience as a nurse, veteran, and community leader to her insightful columns for South Shore Senior News. She is also the founder of Sunny Paws Dog Rescue. Several groups have honored her leadership, including the South Shore Women’s Business Network. She currently sits on the boards of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization Regulatory Committee. For more information, call (781) 341-4145 or visit Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care at www.oldcolonyhospice.org.