Handling grief during the holidays

Palo Alto resident's website gives advice, solace to those who mourn

Gloria Horsley understands the difficulty of dealing with loss during the holidays.

The Palo Alto resident and founder of the Open to Hope Foundation lost her son and her nephew in 1983 in a car crash.

She worked as a registered nurse at the time and found that there were no resources to help her express herself.

"We didn't have anything," she said of both herself and her husband.

So Horsley turned her own grief into a commitment to help families who have gone through similar tragedy. Today, what started as a blog and a radio show has become the largest resource for grief counseling on the Internet. The Open to Hope website features more than 300 writers, 550 podcasts and 100 YouTube videos.

"We want to give a voice to grief," said Horsley, who built up Open to Hope over the past five years.

The website, with its expansive library of materials, reassures those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one that they are not alone, Horsley said.

"They're gonna make it, and it's hard at first to believe that, but it's true," she said.

Dealing with death can be especially daunting during the holidays, when most people are joining their loved ones and songs about family and friends play incessantly on the radio. Often individuals will want to take a break from the holidays and go away for the week, Horsley said -- though this isn't the best approach.

"Sometimes you have to go through the routine, and it's best to do that during the first year," she said, explaining that getting away during the initial year of grief only extends the healing process.

"Take out the ornaments and put up the tree. Just do what you've done in the past," she said.

Mourning is not a solo process, Horsley said, and this fact plays an important role during the holidays.

"If one family member doesn't want to participate, that's expected, but they have to understand that there may be more people who are looking forward to them showing up to Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner," she said.

The second year is different, though. Horsley explained a paradox that occurs during the second year, in that people start to feel better, but they aren't ready for it. It's a confusing time, she said, as people are so used to the pain that when they stop hurting as much they think something might be wrong with them. It's a normal stage and a healthy one, too, she said.

"This is when you can take your time off, if you still need it," Horsley said. If a person does go away, though, he or she should tell loved ones in advance, she added.

What many don't understand is that grieving is difficult both on those affected and those who witness the grief.

"You need to teach people to be good grievers," she said, explaining that friends and family members of mourners typically try to avoid the topic of death. "No one wants to mention it because they don't want to remind you, but that's all you can ever think about anyways, so it's better to openly discuss."

Simple, effective ways to do this are to ask a relative to give a toast or to share photos -- but Horsley warns never to have more photos of the dead than the living. Those with grieving children should have them buddy up with a cousin during family gatherings so they don't feel alone.

"It does get better," Horsley said. "We understand that it's difficult to have hope immediately after, so we don't ask that of them. All we ask is that they're open to it, that they lean on our hope until they find their own."

The foundation has provided many with the voice they need, especially during the middle of the night, said both David Daniels and Kim Perlmutter, who share Horsley's experience of losing a child.

"I listened to so many of the videos when no one else was awake," Perlmutter said. "It was really a saving point for me because there's no one you can call at 3 a.m."

"There's a real community, and the quality of work is riveting," Daniels said. The foundation helps people recognize that "sadness is a natural consequence; it's a healthy process."

Horsley's daughter, Heidi Horsley, is now the executive director of Open to Hope and a professor at Columbia University. She was 20 when her brother died and she didn't initially realize the thoughts she was having were normal. Open to Hope not only helped her with expressing her grief but also in establishing that her emotions, and the emotions of millions of others, were a healthy and regular part of grieving.

"Other people have been there, but they don't know it's OK to feel that way. You want to say to them, 'You'll make it' -- because you know they will," she said.

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