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How to Balance Grief and Joy During the Holidays

By Ron Cichowicz

The holiday season often can be an especially difficult time emotionally for those suffering from a terminal illness as well as those who love them.

Don Scandrol, retired pastor of the United Methodist Church, has experienced this from all sides. Now the Hospice Chaplain with Vitas Healthcare, Scandrol, 71, has a unique perspective on how individuals view an impending passing and how each deals with that reality and any related grief.

“When it comes to grief, everyone is different,” Scandrol said. “Some people cry, some try to avoid the issue, some scream, some laugh, some get angry. We tell them they need to work it out however they choose, aside from hurting others. The acute part of grief doesn’t last forever.”

Scandrol knows of what he speaks. His first wife, Georgia, died 22 years ago from pancreatic cancer. She received her diagnosis in the fall and each year around this time, that experience comes back to him.

“When my wife became ill and we knew it was fatal, she said to me, ‘This isn’t on my to-do list, but I know I’ll be alright,’” Scandrol recalled. “She didn’t want to die, and her disease was horrible. But she had enough experience to make her stronger to face it. People eventually come to a place of calm and acceptance.

“When I think of her now, I remember her as being vibrant. It may have taken me a couple of years and the hurt remains, but in my memory, her smile is there, too.”

A licensed social worker and counselor for half a century, Scandrol said he has always been interested in the human condition and working with people. That is what he entered the seminary to do. But as a pastor, his days were filled with numerous tasks and responsibilities.

So in retirement, when he was called about possibly becoming a chaplain for a hospice, it “grabbed his interest.”

“This is the best ministry I’ve ever had,” he said. “I am totally involved in the lives of the people I’m working with at this point. Now I am just doing ministry.

“What I was trained to do.”

For Scandrol, that ministry includes both the hospice patients and their loved ones.

“The amazing thing about working with hospice,” Scandrol said, “is that all baloney goes away when dealing with the reality of your mortality.”

He shared a story about a man he met a few days after a Thanksgiving.

“He was about my age, and we really connected because we had a lot in common,” Scandrol recalled. “I asked him if the thought of dying made him afraid. He said no, then proceeded to tell me that he fell off a truck when he was 16. He said he died and that he felt very light, with a sense of peace. He could actually see his body on the road. But then he heard a voice telling him ‘they’ weren’t ready for him yet. Then he woke up in the hospital.

“I hear that often from patients: that as death nears, they have a sense of calm as they face death.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean all the people he counsels accept their fate without question.

“Many ask why this is happening to me,” Scandrol said. “They don’t understand it. We do see the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, sadness and acceptance. We don’t always see them in the same order, but we do see them.

“I try to encourage them not to see hospice as a last resort but as a way to experience peace and grace.”

Another important aspect of Scandrol’s role is to comfort the family members as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one—a challenge often exacerbated by the holidays.

“Grief becomes a little more complicated during the holidays,” he said. “Many of us have this ‘Courier and Ives’ picture of the holidays. But when we lose someone, our preconceptions change. We realize we don’t live in a perfect world. Often the holidays become identified with our loss.”

Scandrol explained that many families go through what is formally called “anticipatory grief” when faced with the loss of a loved one.

“We listen to them and talk about reality, that their loved one is in this stage of a journey,” he said. “We should do the best we can to make the most out of the time we have.”

Scandrol admitted that his work can sometimes affect him adversely, but not that often.

“I do miss some people after I’ve had a chance to get close to them and I’m sorry I didn’t get to know them sooner,” he said. “But mostly I meet some amazing people and get a sense of gratification. There’s hardly a time I meet someone I don’t feel good about. I encourage them and they encourage me.”

Scandrol said a coworker once shared a reflection that said grief is like glitter: When you try to clean it up you will never get it all. You will still find glitter tucked into corners. It will always be there.

“But I added to the reflection that after awhile your recollections will mellow and you’ll smile more than you cry,” he said.



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