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Mother, widow shares how her family copes with grief during the holidays

Seven years have passed since Donna Helete lost her husband David Helete to cancer.
Posted at 6:17 PM, Dec 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-21 22:37:29-05

Seven years have passed since Donna Helete lost her husband, David, to cancer.

“It’s a process, There’s layers. There’s just layers and layers, and I still love him,” she said. “We were married for 30 years, and I have two children who were young adults when he died.” 

Soon after her husband's death, a feeling of loss returned to Donna’s life.

“In the following two and a half years, five more people close to me died as well,” she said.

Donna said she learned to befriend grief thanks to counseling at Wilshire Hospice, but she added it is nonetheless still painful.

“Every holiday that comes up it’s like ‘okay, what are we gonna do this year?’ and we decide together,” she said.

A 2021 survey by Experience Camps and The Harris Poll found that 36% of the participants did not feel like celebrating the holidays due to a sense of loss; 52% of them identified as millennials.

“The grief doesn’t go away magically, the grief wants expression,” explained Denise Larosa, the Bereavement Manager for Wilshire Hospice.

“Grief comes and goes in waves. There will be times when you are feeling really good, then for no reason, you start feeling really bad or maybe you feel good and then you feel guilty because you feel good,” said Anthony Huffaker, the Counseling Director at Hospice SLO County.

Loss comes in many forms.

“We’ve worked with folks who have lost elderly parents, people lose children, there’s death by suicide, there’s loss of pets,” said Huffaker.

“During the pandemic, we all lost a typical way of being, loss of finances,” added Larosa.

Experts said it is important to recognize and validate those feelings.

“It can manifest itself physically, you can have too much sleep or too little sleep, too much appetite, too little appetite, not feeling like you have a lot of energy,” explained Huffaker. “It can manifest itself mentally — you feel like you just can’t really concentrate.”

Dealing with loss this time of year is not easy.

“Maybe the holiday reminds them of someone they lost or they lost them in the past around the holidays. The holidays and anniversary, that brings it up,” said Huffaker. “It’s very common, and it’s very hard because everybody feels pressured to be happy.”

Put yourself first and do not be scared to ask for help.

“Do what you feel comfortable in doing and not be afraid to ask for what you need,” reinforced Larosa. “The biggest thing is for people to take care of themselves during his time, so you may want to incorporate the person that you love in different ways like cooking their favorite foods or lighting a candle.”

As someone who is grieving, stay in touch with people and set boundaries for your own mental health.

“We always talk about having a Plan A and a Plan B. If you can drive yourself wherever you’re going so you can leave when you need to leave. If you’re the person you need to get out and take a walk, it’s just a little too much to be with folks right now, to be comfortable saying ‘hey, I’ll be back, I just need to take a walk,’” recommended Huffaker.

Experience Camps also found in that 2021 survey that although 89% of those surveyed agree that grief should be talked about; 70% also said they didn’t feel like they had the skills to support a loved one who is grieving.

A phone call or text can go a long way and consider saying something like this: “I can schedule a doctor’s appointment if you need me to, I can take you, these are things I can do because I care about you, and I don’t know how you are feeling but I just want you to know that I’m here if you need me,” said Larosa.

For Donna Helete, every holiday is different.

“David is still a part of that in a different way. Maybe we’ll pour his favorite glass of wine or we’ll watch the same funny Christmas movie together,” she said.

Hospice SLO County has free group sessions for people who have lost someone or are anticipating a loss.

For more information, click here. You can also call (805) 544-2266.

Wilshire Hospice also offers free grief groups, individual counseling sessions and workshops for those wanting to learn how to be there for someone who is grieving.

To sign up you can call (805) 269-0141 or visit their website, click here.