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.

Opening Ceremonies

Phoenix Society’s 2013 World Burn Congress has officially opened!  Opening ceremonies were conducted this morning as an official start to this international gathering of burn survivors, family members, fire service, healthcare professionals and others focused on the need of long-term recovery services.

A stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" opens the Phoenix Society's 25th Annual World Burn Congress

A stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” opens the Phoenix Society’s 25th Annual World Burn Congress

A special thanks to the Providence Fire Department, the Fire Service Color Guard led by the West Warwick Fire Department, the Rhode Island Professional Fire Fighters Pipes & Drums, and other fire service members and emergency first responders who provide their service, honor, and pride to the burn survivor community!

Welcome attendees to Phoenix Society’s 25th Annual World Burn Congress in Providence, Rhode Island!

Kristin Quinn Recieves Life Time Achievement Award

KristinQuinEach year there are countless volunteers who support and help us develop and deliver the life changing programs and services of the Phoenix Society.  Quite often our volunteers are also superstars at the local level too providing support and prevention programs.

Kristin Quinn is one of those valuable members of the burn community who has given of her time and talent to have a impact both locally and nationally within the burn commmunity.   She is currently a  Phoenix Society SOAR coordinator at University of Utah Hospital, recently participated in our SOAR Firefighter Summit in Phoenix, AZ and has been an active volunteer with our WBC UBelong program since its inception.

Join us in congratulating Kristin and our burn center friend Brad Wiggins and Fire Chief Ron Fife on receiving the Life Time Achievement Award from the American Red Cross of Utah today!  (Is it just me or do they look a little young to be receiving a “Life Time Achievement Award”? ) 

Read more about our SOAR program at www.phoenix-society.org/programs/soar  or our UBelong program for WBC 2013 at
www.phoenix-society.org/worldburncongress/youthandfamilyprogram/

Phoenix Society Joins Efforts to Prevent Tragedy through Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act

By:  Amy Acton

Executive Director, Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors

For the past week, our hearts have been with our friends who were impacted by The Station fire in West Warwick, RI as they prepared themselves for the 10th anniversary, and all of the emotions that would bring.

I attended the memorial Sunday where that tragedy took place, to honor the 100 people who lost their lives that day.  As I stood there,  I recognized so many familiar faces, and was reminded of the efforts of so many people over the last 10 years who have worked, and continue to work, to support this community.

Common Voices -DC 1-group - 02.20.13

The Phoenix Society has played a small part in assisting the healing along with countless other organizations and individuals.  Yet there is still so much to do.  Today we are in DC with our partner Common Voices, promoting the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act to prevent future loss like those experienced in Rhode Island.  Rob Feeney, Phoenix Society Advocate, and others affected that night, have shifted their focus to be voices for change.

Common Voices - DC4 - Rob Feeney 2 - 02.20.13

The Phoenix Society joins Common Voices and other national fire service organizations, who are working with the House and Senate to reintroduce the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act (FSIA) in the 113th Congress.  Join us and add your voice and help us to prevent another fire like the Station fire.  Visit  www.fireadvocates.org 

Phoenix Society at SOAR Firefighter Summit

by:  Pam Peterson

The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Foundation and National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and the University of Kentucky College of Social Work came together this past week to participate in a Firefighter Peer Support Summit, in Phoenix, AZ.

SOAR Summit - IAFF firefighter - unedited 01.30.13

Phoenix Society SOAR instructors, coordinators, and peer supporters, IAFF District Coordinators, Burn Foundations, and the NFFF were among those who took part in the discussion of peer support for the burn injured firefighter and their families.

During the two day summit, participants were introduced to the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, the support needs of burn-injured firefighters and their families, as well as the firefighter specific components newly added to SOAR. Together we have developed goals for future work.  We began discussion about dissemination strategies and will continue this exploration at the meeting at the ABA.

SOAR Summit - Amy A 01.30.13

This exciting effort would not have been possible without the investment and interest of all of those individuals and organizations involved. We especially would like to extend our gratitude to the burn injured firefighters and spouses who participated in the focus groups and surveys that initially explored peer support as a resource for firefighters- they have provided the foundation on which this project has been built.  We would also like to thank everyone who participated in the summit to ensure access to peer support for anyone affected by a burn injury.

Talking to Children about Loss, Trauma and Traumatic Loss

Talking to Children about Loss, Trauma and Traumatic Loss

Megan Bronson PMHCNS-BC

  As parents we want to protect our children and we have difficulty seeing them sad or hurting. However, in order for children to heal after loss, trauma, sudden death and traumatic loss, they need to be able to express their feelings, have those feelings heard with compassion, and have their questions answered appropriately. The following are meant to be guidelines for parents and caregivers who are looking for some assistance in how to tell a child about a loss, sudden death, trauma or traumatic loss, how much to tell them and when to tell them. These guidelines need to be individualized to your child’s particular situation and also modified for their age, developmental stage, and individual capacity to hear about the details of a traumatic event and loss.

Blog Picture - Talking to Children about Loss Trauma

 To tell or not to tell: Choosing not to tell a child about a trauma or traumatic loss risks the child hearing about the event in an unsupported or even an insensitive manner, such as from an older child, the media, or gossip. The child may also overhear adult conversation that is confusing and perhaps intensely emotional from upset adults who are also impacted by the loss or trauma. Better that you, the parents or caregivers who know the child best set the tone, choose the place, and the context for informing the child. Another risk of not telling the child is that we risk losing the child’s trust when we withhold information from them that they need to make sense of a situation and their feelings. Children often feel lied to and betrayed when they are not provided timely information.

  1. Who should tell: It is best for the child to hear difficult news from a trusted caregiver   such as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, older brother or sister as these will be   the people who will be having ongoing supportive contact with the child and can follow up with them.
  2. Setting the time and place: Choose a time that you are in control enough of your  own feelings so that you can focus on the needs of your child. It is fine for your child to see your tears, however, it is not beneficial for a child to have to end up comforting  a parent’s overwhelming emotion. Many children protect parents from their own grief  because they see that the parent is hurting and they do not want to add to that.  Choose a place that provides privacy so that your child doesn’t need to feel self conscious about expressing their feelings or tears.
  3. When and how to tell:  Because of the risk to trust and also the risk of the child hearing in an unsupported manner, it is better to inform the child as soon possible after the traumatic incident or loss in age appropriate, clear and simple  language.  Avoid providing too many details as this will overwhelm the child. An example of simple and clear information would be, “There was a bad accident, and Daddy was hurt so badly that they could not fix him and he died. We are all very hurt and sad and sometimes even mad and we will miss him very much.”  The truth spoken simply with kindness and compassion catalyzes the emotional healing process. Older children may be able to handle more details and will ask for them when they are ready. Allow children to express their feelings and to ask questions. Avoid judging feelings or trying to fix them–just hear them and respond to them with compassion and comfort.
  4. Plant the seeds for future discussions: “You may not feel like talking about this right now but when you are ready to talk or have more questions we can talk about how you feel and get answers to your questions when we are able to.”  Follow up with the child periodically to see if they have further questions or need to talk. Focused listening and physical comfort need not take large amounts of time but can be given even for fifteen or twenty minutes a day and have a profound impact on the child’s emotional healing.
  5. How many details should children hear? This depends on the age of the child, their individual and developmental readiness to process upsetting and particularly horrifying details. Ask yourself if the child really needs to know the details at this time or if this can wait until they are older and more able to process and integrate the details. Sometimes these details may not be appropriate to share until the child is in their late teens or young adulthood.
  6. Ways to help your child:
  • Avoid exposing children to television coverage of the traumatic event that          effected your family or coverage of any traumatic event
  •  Avoid having adult conversations about the traumatic event within                        earshot of the child
  • Find a support group for grieving children and families, such as Gilda’s Club,          Hospice,  Church, Community, or Hospital based Bereavement groups. You may      also choose to seek support from specialty groups such as cancer support            groups, burn survivor support groups, survivors of suicide or homicide,  a                  group for bereaved parents, (such as Compassionate Friends), etc. Contact the       community mental health agency in your area for available support groups.
  • Seek individual counseling as needed
  • Be aware of trauma symptoms in yourself and your child and seek professional help if these persist
  • Talk to the child’s teacher and school counselor and let them know what your           child is going through
  • Provide your child with paper, crayons, markers and other creative materials         such as play dough, fingerpaints and other expressive materials as these are natural and effective ways for children to express their feelings
  • Provide the child with outlets for their anger and frustration such as age                 appropriate physical activities
  • Take care of yourself–you deserve this and your child needs you

Excellent grief and trauma resources for Adults and Children:

www.compassionbooks.com

www.theselfesteemshop.com

www.dougy.org The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and   Families

www.childtrauma.org Child Trauma Academy  Bruce Perry MD, PhD

www.trauma-pages.org David Baldwin PhD.Trauma Information

www.samhsa.gov/MentalHealth/Tips%20for%20Talking%20to%20Children%20in%20Trauma_LOW_RES.pdf

 

 

 

GRATITUDE

The holiday season is often a time when people feel moved to express their gratitude for the blessings they have.  For burn survivors and family members, the holidays can be a mix of challenging circumstances and appreciation for the many people who have made a difference in their lives.  We would like to encourage you to spend a little extra time this season focusing on the positive and wonderful things around you.

Research is beginning to show that people who feel grateful are psychologically, emotionally and physically happier and healthier. They are more optimistic, have more energy, sleep better, get sick less often and are socially more outgoing.  We are also learning that the practice of gratitude helps with emotional healing; negative thoughts seem to pop up less when gratitude is practiced more.  And there’s more good news:  you can create habits that bolster gratitude and reap the resulting benefits.

The following activities will help you and your family to build your gratitude skills.  Choose one or two this holiday season and watch your own spirit of thankfulness and appreciation grow stronger and fuller.

CREATE A GRATITUDE JOURNAL:  Take time daily to write down at least three things from your day that you are thankful for.  For families, go around the dinner table and have everyone share one example of gratitude from the day.  For individuals, share a journal entry with a friend.

Thank You - heike - friend -small

GRATEFUL ACTS OF KINDNESS:  Practice exercising your appreciation by doing intentional acts of kindness.  Visit your local firefighters or burn center and take a plate of cookies.  Have the children draw pictures and send them to the burn center.

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MAKE GOOD MEMORIES:  Intentionally make memories to be grateful for, with people you’re grateful for.  Take fun photos of yourself or your family, draw pictures of good memories from the year and hang them in the windows, post your favorite joke on _GRG7472  Facebook, write a blog, make a photo-book, send a hand written letter:  all ways to document experiences you’re appreciative of.  Share them with others.

 In the art of appreciation, from all of us at the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, thank you for who you are and all you do!  We look forward to 2013 and are grateful to have you as part of the burn survivor community.