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No One Told Me About Vacations

“No one told me about vacations,” is a statement frequently heard from bereaved parents. “We thought getting away might make life easier for us, but it only made it clear how tough things really were.” To understand why many bereaved parents feel this way, we must first understand what vacations symbolize and then examine some unique difficulties vacations present to bereaved parents.

Family vacations have become an American ritual, laden with the symbolism of togetherness, fun, financial success and the reward for working hard. We work for vacations and frequently spend months planning them. But it is not only these symbols that are important. Vacations have come to represent a reaffirmation of family life: providing an opportunity to strengthen the family bond, creating a history of shared experiences, and sharing moments of closeness and intimacy. In addition, vacations are a time for healing the stress of everyday life, and for getting away from familiar environments and routines. Along with opportunities to see new places and have new experiences, vacations carry with them the notion of getting in touch with one another, re-establishing intimacy, sharing, and communication.

Following a period away from home and the fun of sharing and retelling experiences to family and friends, there is another aspect to vacations that we frequently forget. This aspect of vacations does not necessarily become part of the family history. Although most vacations are fun and rewarding experiences, many families experience a period of adjustment as they become reacquainted without the barriers of school, work and regular routines. We forget rushing to get ready, arguing and bickering among the children, getting lost on the freeway, or losing luggage at the airport. We forget the car was crowded, that we took too much luggage, that we were exhausted from doing too much. We write off the unexpected expenses and simply remember that vacations always cost more than we expect.

In addition to these typical annoyances, there is another aspect to vacations that is often not spoken about; that is an idealized or uncommunicated expectation of what family vacations have come to mean to us and what we expect from them. For instance, while one spouse may be looking forward to a relaxing respite from work, the other spouse may be hoping for an opportunity to reestablish the closeness and intimacy that have been missing in the relationship. Children may be expecting relaxed rules, less parental control and more freedom. These unexpressed expectations, or hidden agendas, may not be fully understood or appreciated by other family members. Uncommunicated expectations can lead to stressful vacations or, as mentioned, a period of adjustment as individual family members develop an awareness of each others expectations and needs.

Where do bereaved families fit into this picture as they try to go on with their lives, to reestablish a sense of normalcy for their surviving children and a sense of hope for the future? Why do bereaved parents return home from a first or second vacation feeling disappointed and let down? What about those families where the family structure has changed in such a fundamental way that parents face a vacation without any children along, perhaps for the first time? To understand what happens, perhaps we have to examine the needs of bereaved families within the context of the familiar family vacation.

Bereaved families, like other families, need a respite from the stress of everyday life and work. Unlike other families, however, some bereaved families want to escape from the stress and pressure of intense grief. They need relief from trying to adjust to a familiar environment that no longer includes their child as well a sense of normalcy for their surviving children. Thus, for bereaved parents, vacations take on an additional meaning and can be perceived as an opportunity to reach some vaguely defined grief related goals.

There are other problem areas as well. For some bereaved parents, there is a belief that vacations may provide an opportunity for relief from grief and escape from a painful home environment. For others, vacations can be potentially fearful experiences. Some may experience ambivalent feelings about being together without the familiar and sometimes comforting barriers of home and work. After all, getting away together, without the protection of these barriers, tends to emphasize the absence of our child. Furthermore, the absence of regular routines and obligations weakens our defenses against dealing with painful emotions. Sometimes, a relaxed atmosphere and free time allow more time than we want for painful thoughts and reflection.

Many newly bereaved parents recall the fearful anticipation of leaving home for the first time after the death of their child. Whether it is leaving memories of the child, creating new memories, or fearing another tragedy, leaving home seems to be a common dread. Also, some parents feel that simply making vacation plans causes anxiety while others suggest it has more to do with coming home and once again facing the reality of life without their child. Many bereaved parents remember the experience of visiting extended family for the first time after the death of their child. Not only are they faced with the discomfort of socializing with numerous relatives, but it often seems as if no one wants to talk about the child or what happened. As a result, these family reunion vacations may leave a residue of bitter feelings and needs left unmet.

Expectations of what vacations can and cannot do to facilitate the healing process also enter into the picture. Spouses may have unexpressed expectations about sharing their grief, resolving issues of guilt or blame, or sharing memories of the past. One spouse may see the vacation as an opportunity to share his grief while the other spouse may want to avoid any discussion at all.

Having said this, what are the options for bereaved parents? Should we not take vacations? Are there too many potential pitfalls that will result in further distress for us? The response to this question may appear obvious, but it is not that easy.

Bereaved parents need to be aware of what vacations can and cannot accomplish. Each of us who has experienced the death of a child comes to realize that there are no simple answers or solutions to getting through the grief experience. We do, however, come to understand that there are things we can do to make life easier for ourselves, and we need to keep these in mind as we plan vacations, just as we do for other grief related issues and concerns. In addition, we need to remember that there are no absolute ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’ to living with grief. There is no right or wrong way; we do the best we can under difficult circumstances.

Some of the following guidelines may be helpful as you plan your vacation.

1. Previous vacations: Remember previous family vacations, not all of them were tension free or without periods of adjustment, but that did not mean they were not successful experiences. Family life and raising children are never easy, and vacations provide one more avenue of learning about each other as well as learning to live together. We still have to live with the everyday upsets and annoyances of marriage and family life as well as the added stress that grief places upon these relationships.

2. Expectations: Share your expectations and your hopes about the vacation. Do not assume that your spouse and children know how you feel. If you need time to share your feelings, to remember the past, or to be alone, make sure these needs have been expressed.

3. Realistic planning: Plan a vacation that is neither totally relaxed time without a schedule, nor totally hectic sightseeing. Arrange time for planned activities as well as time to relax and to recoup your energies. Discuss the pros and cons of going back to a familiar place or visiting a new area or having a new experience. Neither option is a perfect solution, but talk about what might be most comfortable for your family.

4. Coping with grief on vacation: You do not leave grief at home, it goes with you in your suitcase, on the airplane, and in your car. It is important to be realistic about what a vacation can accomplish.

5. Anticipation: Remember that the anxiety created by the anticipation of an event is often more intense than the actual event. Whether you leave town or remain at home while on vacation, it is important that you take that time for yourself. Grief takes its toll; it is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. And, imperfect as they are, vacations do afford us an opportunity to become re-energized. Over analyzing a vacation can be hazardous. It is helpful to discuss how things are going, what helps, and what does not, but trying to figure out all the answers can be an overwhelming task itself. It is important to allow yourself to be distracted, to relax and to do what you can to enjoy yourself. There are no quick fixes, easy answers, or perfect solutions. We do the best we can. That’s true for vacations, just as it is true for everyday life.

~ Judy Kaplan, while she was editor of the TCF US National Newsletter. Her 3½ year old twin daughter, Alison, died in 1981 as a result of a brain tumor.

Men and Grief

by Jeanne M. Harper

Ken Doka speaks of “disenfranchised grief” that is when loss cannot be openly acknowledged socially sanctioned or publicly I shared. one of the reasons maybe that the “griever is not recognized.”

Quite often that is exactly what happens to men in their families. The stereotypical man is to “be strong and frequently required to not show emotion at the time of death of their loved ones.

Problems this can create may include a bad mood, lack of social support, exclusion from care. The grief may then be intensified, and without support the male griever is ALONE.

Carol Staudacher in her 1991 book MEN AND GRIEF, demonstrates how typical males may respond to death of their loved one. She bases her theory on Havinghurst’s Tasks of Mourning which was elaborated by Dr. William Worden in his book GRIEF COUNSELING GRIEF THERAPY. Carol reports from her research that most grievers, male and female, go throuqh Phase One:

PHASE ONE. Retreatinq: temporary manage pain and anxiety shock, numbness, disbelief, confusion, disorientation denial. Goal: Grappling with and testing reality

Men appear to go through Phase One and Three. Differences for men and women seem to arise in Phase Two:

PHASE TWO. Working through: by confronting and enduring. Having a range of responses by thinking, talking, crying, writing about disorganization in their lives. Goal: Detachment from loved one NOT from emotions; must experience the pain

Many men have been raised to NOT talk, cry, or reach out (for Support). Therefore, their grief tends to stay inside and can create physical ailments, as studies have shown. Heart attacks, ulcers, cancer are a few of the physical ailments that can be created when the grief stays within. Men who do express, release or completely work through their grief are the EXCEPTION rather than the rule.

The third phase is something most men are exceptional at doing. They can be masters at reorganizing and restructuring because it involves a lot of THINKING. For most men, objective THINKING is their gift.

PHASE THREE. Resolving: reorganizing and restructuring life. Goals: Adjust to Environment-take on new identity Reinvest Time and Energy-develop new goals

Carol’s research shows that men have established four typical male coping styles that are LEGITIMATE and ACCEPTABLE alternatives to WORKING THROUGH grief (Phase 2). These patterns have enabled them to take advantage of their natural gifts and talents.

  1. Remain Silent–They will keep the pain to themselves They appear to not need to communicate about their qrief. The non – communication helps them protect themselves against being vulnerable-which to them is “expressing” qrief through tears, feelings, sharing.
  2. Engaging in “Secret Grief”—This is a method of “solitary mourning” activities, i.e. taking the new puppy for a walk—puppy represents NEW LIFE and crying and feeling as they walk, hug and play with the NEW LIFE. They do this solitary mourning to “spare others from seeing, feeling, experiencing their grief. For most men to do otherwise seems against “cultural expectations”.
  3. Taking Physical & Legal Action – Many men immediately attempt to bring control to an “out of control’ situation by taking physical and legal action for extended periods of time. Others support and reward them for being “assertive and courageous” in their time of grief.
  4. Becoming Immersed in Activity – Most men become obsessive about activity. They diligently find things to, occupy their time…all of it. They fill “every waking minute” with work, errands, house activities. This immersion consumes time, energy and thought so there is no time for grief, no time for thinking of the loss ahd no time for feeling the grief pain.

Recently, I attended a conference on death education and counseling in Portland. Ken Doka and Terry Martin presented a session on men and grief. They found in their studies that men needed closed groups with separate subjects planned for each session. The material needed to be presented in a problem-solving mode. A method most men feel accustomed to. Supporters of men need to allow for the expression of emotion in ways that are compatible to the male roles {such as the patterns that Staudacher described}. Ask questions “how did you react” rather than “how do you feel”. Most men need to return to work as soon as possible. Research showed that most men felt better if they were working (again this corresponds with Staudacher’s work).

The important issue is that each gender uses their own STRENGTHS to deal with grief and IN TIME they, both genders, out of their grief. One way of grieving is NOT better than another. Rather there are differences in how they grieve. These differences need to be CELEBRATED, not corrected. Carl Jung says we balance our lives as we age…men become more in touch with their feminine qualities and women become more aggressive and in touch with their male qualities. Each gender’s way of coping has negative AND positive aspects.

In conclusion, the tasks of grief [testing the reality, experiencing the pain, adjusting to the environment and reinvesting time and energy back into life], are experienced individually. Respect must be experienced so we do not “disenfranchise” anyone’s grief or grieving process due to our stereotypical expectations. Men and women must come to a point where they can learn from each other’s methods of grieving, rather than judge these methods. We need to understand their are personality style differences, as well as male/female differences. All differences can be CELEBRATED, it is your choice.


Copyright: Alpha-Omega Venture, Jeanne M. Harper, 1113 Elizabeth Ave., PO Box 735 Marinette, WI 54143-0735