Surviving the Holidays After a Loss: One Family’s Strategies for Coping

By James A. Bosch MA, MFTi

It never occurred to Tara Stackpole that her world could be turned upside down any more than it had been on June 5, 1998. That was the day her husband, Capt. Timothy Stackpole, NYFD, was severely burn injured in a Brooklyn structure fire when he and two other firefighters got trapped in a collapsed building. Timothy suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over 36% of his body. One of his partners died in the fire, and the other passed away a month later.

Timothy feared he might never walk again, let alone go back to work. He and his family faced a long journey of recovery, rehabilitation and coping with the many difficult stressors that follow a traumatic burn injury.

Timothy Stackpole with his youngest son, Terence.

Timothy Stackpole with his youngest son, Terence.

For many families in this situation, a particularly challenging source of stress is the aggressive “media storm” that often follows such an incident. “The media can be intrusive to your family life though during a difficult time like this,” Tara says, “You start to feel like your life is very exposed and sometimes out of your control.” Tara is grateful to be able to say that her family’s experience turned out to be fairly manageable, due largely to the assistance of the FDNY. The department not only provided manpower to deal with the reporters who initially “camped out” at the hospital, but it also sent others to the hospital to act as security for the Stackpoles.  

Despite the daunting outlook and overwhelming new challenges, Timothy was determined to rehabilitate and get back to his regular duties at the department. Tara was at Tim’s side as often as possible, juggling hospital visits with maintaining a household and taking care of their five children.  

With hard work, faith, and determination, Timothy not only achieved his goal of going back to work, but he also earned a bachelor’s degree.  On December 6, 2000, his name finally came up on the captains list; in March 2001, Timothy returned to full duty at the fire department; and by early September, he had received his eagerly awaited promotion. Tim was thrilled. He loved his job more than ever. Life appeared to be getting back to normal for the Stackpole family.

Then on September 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened—the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Two jet airliners hit the Twin Towers. For Tara and her children, the world once again turned upside down, but much more tragically and permanently. Timothy died.

After 16 years of marriage, Tara lost the love of her life, and Kevin, Kaitlyn, Brian, Brendan, and Terence lost their dad. Their hometown was in ruins around them. One of Tara’s first thoughts amidst the shock and the dust was, “Oh, my goodness, Christmas is going to happen! How am I supposed to give my children a Christmas?” She didn’t want her children’s future to include having to tell the story about how daddy died and mommy fell apart. What follows is the story of how Tara got through the first and subsequent winters, as well as other milestones and anniversaries.

Going Into Survival Mode

The first Christmas, she went into survival mode. Her first thought was, “I need to take my kids away from all of this and just get through it.” Her family and friends swooped in and took over—and didn’t allow her to escape. Tara’s willingness to rely on others helped her make it through. She took things one step at a time. “I couldn’t even open my box of special ornaments. Every one of them had a memory attached to it. Those memories would have been a knife in my heart.” That box stayed unopened, but a couple weeks before Christmas the fire department provided a tree and new ornaments.

“My husband was a very traditional man and loved having an open door policy during holidays and on special occasions,” recalls Tara. The family decided to keep alive the spirit of celebration Tim had embodied. They also blended old and new traditions; for instance, the following Christmas they took out the old box, decorated one tree with the special ornaments and a second tree with new memories.

Creating New Rituals

Another way Tara helped her kids was to createnew rituals.  One of these was a holiday breakfast, originally intended for Tara’s young daughter and her girlfriends. The event grew to include Tara’s other children and their friends as well. The now-annual tradition continues with Tara’s adult children coming home early for the holidays specifically so they can attend the “Stackpole breakfast.” Tara recalls stepping back on one of these special mornings while all the kids were filling her house with laughter and joy and thinking, “Darn, Timothy would have loved this. It’s something he would have done!” The new traditions have brought meaning back to the holidays while at the same time honoring the memory of their loved one.

Supporting Others

Tara eventually took a step that significantly improved her coping abilities. She accepted an invitation to become a Phoenix Society SOAR volunteer and got involved in a 9/11 family advisory board. The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR program helps burn survivors and their families deal with the aftermath of a burn injury and get back to living their lives.

“When I was first asked to help as a SOAR supporter, I was hesitant because my husband was since deceased,” Tara admits. “But when I listened to what was being taught, I thought to myself, ‘I know how these patients and their families feel. I knew I could easily connect with them and help in some small way.”

Last year, Tara provided support for the family of an injured firefighter from her husband’s old department. It was the week before Christmas, and she would simply go and sit with them. “The holidays were basically a wash for them, all I could do is be honest and tell them there is no one way to get through this.” When the family remembers that first difficult holiday, they will surely also remember Tara’s loving presence and the specific, powerful support that comes only from someone who has lived through it themselves.

Tara speaks of her gratitude for a psychiatrist who visited her within a week of her husband’s death. The psychiatrist told her that grief is something you never really get over, but that it lives parallel to your life, like two strands. Sometimes those strands lay side by side. At other times, they intersect and cause a bad day or a tough moment. He shared his best advice for dealing with those hard times: honor them, give them the respect and space they need, and allow all the feelings that come up rather than fighting them or pushing them away. This advice, which Tara says has given her great peace and acceptance, is something she can now share with the families she supports.

Making Changes That Heal

After Tim’s death, Tara had to make certain changes in order to heal. One was to move closer to the ocean and to her family. Another was to stop feeling that she had to participate in every single 9/11 ceremony and event. Instead, a private Mass is offered in her backyard every year on the evening of September 11. There a core group of family and friends meet to celebrate Timothy’s life. Tara says the group changes and evolves, just like she and her children are evolving with Timothy gone. She recalls a particularly unforgettable year when the Mass was held during an especially brilliant sunset. Tara looked across the bay at downtown New York and saw the two spotlights from Ground Zero shooting up and through the colors of the evening. She became peaceful. She felt that Timothy was indeed there with them and realized that life does continue.

From left to right:  Kevin, Tara, Brian, Terence, Kaitlyn, and Brendan Stackpole.

From left to right: Kevin, Tara, Brian, Terence, Kaitlyn, and Brendan Stackpole.

For Tara, it is not just important dates that bring hard times. “Sometimes on the less significant days I miss my husband more…the private moments and private anniversaries are sometimes harder.” They are as much a part of the fabric of her life as the happy memories.

 Over the years, the most successful strategies become clear. “Do not be hard on yourself, lighten it all up. You don’t have to set out the entire Christmas Village, just take a few things out.  Share stories about your loved one.”

Tara gets great joy from hearing one of her kids say, “Dad would have loved this.” Moments like this are a reminder that we keep our loved ones with us through our stories. She encourages others to disengage from the materialistic aspects of the holidays now, to not wait for a tragedy to make it painfully clear what is really important.

 For the Stackpole family, keeping Timothy’s presence alive through stories brings comfort, and the blending of old and new traditions has helped them move forward as well. Tara also feels strongly that when you’ve lost a loved one, the best way to honor them is to live your life. “That is what we can do,” she explains “We can’t bring him back, but we can live a life he would want for us.”

Tips for Getting Through the Holidays After Losing a Loved One

No matter what holiday you celebrate and regardless of your chosen tradition or religion, it is possible to survive the death of a loved one and find meaning in the holidays again. The most important coping strategy to remember, especially during those first holidays, is to create space for difficult feelings and awkward moments.

Helpful Tips on Getting Through the Difficult Holidays and Anniversaries

Do only what feels right. There are no right or wrong ways to celebrate the holidays without your loved one. Consult with your immediate family and come up with a plan that works for you. Resist the temptation to do what you always did or to feel pressured into attending parties or occasions that feel too difficult.

Find peer support. Connect with other groups of individuals who are also grieving. Find a grief support group or reach out to an individual who you know has lost a loved one.  Find out how others cope with the holidays and you will learn you are not alone in your feelings.

Nurture, nurture, nurture. Respect your body during these difficult times and practice lots of self-care–bubble baths, walks, time alone, and distractions (such as movies). Pay attention to cues that you are overloaded and need to take care of yourself. Avoid harmful coping techniques, such as alcohol, drugs, binge eating, and not eating enough. Set limits and boundaries with others when you need space.

Additional Insights

Allow yourself to not participate in the hype. Try to disengage from the commercial aspects of the holidays. Give yourself permission to shop or not shop. Set aside the pressure to “keep up” with the hype of the season. If you have small children, ask for help from relatives and friends to help you create a holiday atmosphere for them. You can’t buy away grief.

Create ritual. Hang a stocking for your loved one, set a place for them at the Chanukah dinner, create memory alters with photos from past holidays, participate in your individual faith celebrations and remember your loved ones in services or by lighting candles for them.

 Helpful Pointers for Getting Through As a Family

Everyone in the family may grieve differently. Give each other plenty of space, and support each other when asked. Know that difficulty and conflict can arise in families as each family member may have different ideas on how to celebrate. The optimal way to deal with this is to openly talk with each other about the expectations and the roles people want to play.  Here are some holiday strategies:

1.      Share stories around the table about your deceased loved one.

2.      Look at old photo albums together.

3.      Observe a moment of silence together to honor your loved one.

4.      Place an empty chair where your loved one normally sat and place a flower or candle there.

5.      Decide which traditions you want to keep and which you would like to change.

Something experts seem to agree on, which is also emphasized in Tara’s story, is that the most important thing you can do is talk about your loved one. At functions, if you do not speak his or her name, often no one else will either. Say your loved one’s name, include them in stories of past holidays, and allow space for the tears that may come with these memories.

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and is a consultant.

Transformation That Begins With a Phone Call

maureen and assistance dogWhen you call the Phoenix Society, you may notice something unique in this fast-paced world of automation–you receive a warm and personal “hello” from a member of the Phoenix Society staff.  And something truly special happens when a burn survivor, family member, health care professional, or fire service member calls in need of support.

 Our staff of 9 people greets thousands of calls each year.  Those calls are quickly connected to the most appropriate member of our program team who listens to the caller’s need and works through a course of action for each individual. Although this is just one of the many hats our program team wears in their work at Phoenix Society, it is treasured.  “These calls take me back to my days as a critical care nurse and allow me to connect personally with those we are here to serve” says Pam, Phoenix Society Program Director, who has been a registered nurse for 22 years.  “For so many, their phone call is their first connection to support and the beginning of a transformation.”

A Life-Changing Phone Call

Maureen’s first call to the Phoenix Society in December 2012 was one of those beginnings.  Maureen explained that she was burned at the age of 3 when hot oil was poured on the top of her head. However, the point she remembers really shaping her life was the first day of kindergarten in the 1950s. She arrived in class with a scarf tied over her head as she wore every day to cover her scars. It was when her teacher, unaware of her injuries, made her stand and remove her scarf that she froze in panic. Finally submitting to her teacher’s demand, she removed her scarf for the first time in public and remembers the gasps and comments that followed her as she ran down the hall to escape. Maureen, her family (including 6 siblings), and the community were unaware and unprepared to help her overcome the challenges she faced growing up with a burn injury.

“For so many, their phone call is their first connection to support and the beginning of a transformation”

For Maureen, this led to a life of isolation and constant struggle with confidence. The fear of people’s reactions kept her from taking off her wig or scarf and made it impossible to engage in daily life. She avoided experiences like getting a haircut, going swimming, or taking a walk on a windy day. It was easier to keep her scars hidden.

Fifty-seven years after her burn injury, in an effort to overcome her depression and connect with someone who could understand her feelings, she went to her local library to search the Internet for help. She searched “trauma,” then “burn trauma,” and that’s when a link to the Phoenix Society website appeared. She explored the online articles and resources with eagerness. One in particular helped “pull her out of her depression,” she recalls. “I read the Adults Burned as Children article and thought . . . ‘this is about me, I am not alone. . . these feelings are normal!’ I felt validated. A weight lifted and I called the Phoenix Society the next morning.”

Something Maureen said really struck Pam during that first conversation, “I want to participate in life instead of letting it pass me by, but I don’t know how,” she remarked. That call for help was the beginning of her transformation.

A Plan of Action

Over the next year Phoenix Society worked with physicians and social workers at the SOAR hospital closest to Maureen to further evaluate her physical scars, helped locate counseling in her local area and educate the center on the challenges of burn trauma, and walked Maureen through our online learning programs specific to empowering survivors with social skills. We also became her support system through regular emails and phone calls.

When Maureen first called, she had never met another burn survivor and “wanted to fix her burns.”  After walking through the process together, she knows there is no quick fix for a burn injury, but now has tools to help her live life. It has become a team effort over the last year as most of us have had the pleasure of speaking with Maureen and were all very excited to finally have the opportunity to meet her in person.  With the assistance of a Phoenix Society George Pessotti WBC Attendee Scholarship, she was able to attend the 2013 World Burn Congress in Providence, Rhode Island, and for the first time meet not only the staff with whom she had been communicating, but, most importantly, hundreds of burn survivors just like her.

For Pam, meeting Maureen at World Burn Congress was particularly rewarding.  “I know the courage it took for her to step out of her house and fly to Rhode Island.  It is so gratifying to see her blossom, make friends, attend sessions, and be empowered to live life,” she says.   Describing her experience at WBC, Maureen said, “I finally feel like I am human . . . accepted and loved.” maureen support

Looking back at the feelings of isolationshe had endured throughout her life, Maureen remarked, “I wish I knew about this 57 years ago.” She encouraged other survivors to reach out, saying, “The sooner you call Phoenix Society for help, the sooner healing beings.  But, it’s never too late!”

Our Goal for 2014

Every day we receive calls from
survivors like Maureen, but for every call we receive, the reality is there are thousands that have not yet connected to the resources and support they need to truly live life. In the U.S. alone, 450,000 people are treated for burn injuries each year.

The hands-on experiences of the Phoenix Society program team have made it clear that

“I finally feel like I am human… accepted and loved”

our primary need, as we move into 2014, is to reach the thousands who are still struggling alone and are unaware that the Phoenix Society is here to help them on their journey of healing. Second, we must have the staff and resources necessary to respond to the increasing number of calls we are receiving.

Your donations made Maureen’s transformation possible. Your continued support ensures we can reach survivors sooner in their recovery and be able to guide them to the support they need to overcome their struggles. What a difference you make!

Your donation supports Phoenix Society programs that provide burn survivors with the tools and resources they need to thrive again

Your donation supports Phoenix Society programs that provide burn survivors with the tools and resources they need to thrive again

Phoenix Society’s Talent Show Participants Shine!

Last night’s Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress Talent Show participants dazzled the audience with a show of amazing talent!  We would like to thank all the participants for their efforts and willingness to share their performances with their fellow attendees!  We would also like to thank the talent show emcees, Frank O’Donnell and Tom Stewart, for providing their talents as well.

 

Wrapping up our Skills and Moving On at UBelong

While today is the last day of UBelong programming, we know that the impacts for each of us will go on and on.  We wrapped up by reinforcing the skills from earlier in the workshop (our confidence through STEPS, Rehearse Your Responses tools, and bullying prevention tools).  Everyone got a chance to say out lout how important it is to be understood and  make new friends.

Our program closing ceremony included previewing the video we’ve been working hard at, as well as a ritual that reminds us all of how we are all important parts of the survivor community.  We may be leaving Providence tomorrow, but we will all take the lessons and support with us!

WBC 2013 Volunteers – We Thank You!

Phoenix Society volunteers give with their hearts and offer the many hands needed to make World Burn Congress an inspiring and healing week for all in attendance. Many give countless hours on top of their busy work and home lives to quietly work behind the scenes and make it all happen. We honor and value their contributions and would like to extend our deepest thanks for all they do.

“Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch” – Tyler Hawkins

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Whether you are a volunteer that has given an hour or worked with us for years, rest assured that the lives you touch are many and the gifts you give are great. We welcome your continued involvement in this amazing community.

With Heartfelt Gratitude,

Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors

Chris Gilyard Describes her Journey – “Walking Through Ashes”

Chris Gilyard, featured speaker at today’s World Burn Congress general session, uses the words “Walking Through the Ashes” to describe her burn injury experience and her journey through years of recovery.  Thirty five years ago, burned in an auto accident at the age of 17, she suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 21% of her body, with her face having some of the deepest burns.ChrisBlogpic

Chris explained that, although the physical pain and recovery in the burn center was intense, the emotional healing from her injuries was equally devastating.  She described how, upon first seeing her reflection in the mirror, she thought ” I don’t look like a girl anymore…..who is ever going to love me?”

Upon being discharged from the security of the burn center, Chris explained, she had no support groups, websites, camps, school or social reentry, or social skills training available. They simply weren’t available at that time.  She experienced the humiliation and pain of pointing, laughing, inappropriate questions, and hurtful comments.  And although her family was loving and highly supportive, they did not have the skills or resources to handle the difficulties of going out in public and responding to the reactions of others.

Chris stated, ” I felt so alone”.

Chris compared the available resources and assistance she had during her journey, and what she wouldn’t have done to have the resources that are offered by the Phoenix Society today, such as SOAR, for a peer supporter who has “been there” like she had; for social reentry skills, such as the Phoenix Society’s “Beyond Surviving:Tools for Thriving”, to help with going out in public; and for a school reentry program such as Phoenix Society’s Journey Back, to help with the challenges of returning to school.  Although she didn’t have these tools, Chris did rely upon the support of family, friends and therapy on her journey to recovery.

She described the breadth of her journey, including a pivotal point where another family member experienced a severe burn injury, and how this motivated her to pay it forward by becoming a Burn Support Representative at Regions Hospital Burn Center, in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She stated she learned  “the journey is much easier to do with someone by your side.”

Today, Chris is married with 2 sons and works in private practice as a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist in Minnesota, offering caring and healing for those struggling with burn and other types of trauma.

Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors continues to be the central hub for resources for everyone affected by burn injury, offering peer support – SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery), online learning courses, online support chat services, the Journey Back resource for school reentry, and many other educational tools and resources so that burn survivors and their families can live productive and fulfilling lives.  No one has to travel the road of recovery alone.  More information is available for these resources at http://www.phoenix-society.org.

UBelong Participants Experience Expressive Art!

Peace Love Studios helped kick off UBelong programming with Expressive Art!

Our two oldest small groups got to actually travel to the Peace Love Studios to work on their masterpieces! The two younger small groups enjoyed a visit from Peace Love staff here at the Convention Center.  Everyone had a chance to “express themselves” individually and be a part of something much bigger, too – a piece of group artwork!

We’re all very excited to have started work on our own UBelong video, which is also all about expressing ourselves.  In it, everyone at UBelong has a chance to tell you what they “want you to know”.  Through this week, we’ll talk a lot about being BRAVE, and today’s video content sure started to show off how brave all these UBelong participants really are!