How Rehtaeh Parsons's mom is helping those with loss get through the holidays
'There is a lot of grief out there and a lot of people ... dreading going into this season,' says Leah Parsons
Leah Parsons knows the challenge of trying to be upbeat during the Christmas season while mired in grief. It's a struggle she's had since 2013 when her 17-year-old daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons, died after a suicide attempt following months of bullying and harassment.
She and Roy Ellis, a therapist and grief counsellor, are holding two free public sessions in Dartmouth and Halifax to help support those coping with loss at this time of the year.
Parsons said she frequently who hears from people in pain and she hopes they can find the energy to attend the sessions, which are being called the Dark Days of December.
"There is a lot of grief out there and a lot of people ... dreading going into this season, so we thought it'd be a good idea to put this together so we can have some dialogue, some connection and for people to know they're not alone," she told CBC's Mainstreet.
"There are some things that they can do to make it a little more pleasurable, just make it more manageable for them."
Ellis said the sessions are not just for people who have lost loved ones. For example, Christmas can also be challenging for people who have had unhappy childhoods.
"For a lot of people, just generally, the season does tend to magnify and bring out a sense of sorrow and loneliness because there's so much cheer evidently," he said.
Ellis said instead of feeling social and outgoing, some people will pull further back "to protect yourself from this world of joy and jingle and light."
Parsons said Christmas holidays remind people of "who's not there."
She said even people who have gone through an extended grieving process and are feeling healthier may have a setback during the holidays.
Double dose of sadness
For Parsons, December comes with a double dose of sadness as her daughter's birthday was in that month.
Much of the pair's advice centres around doing what feels right, instead of being locked into expected activities.
"One of the most important things is to give myself permission to be however I need to be each day," Parsons said.
She and Ellis met at a Camp Brigadoon Village event and reconnected a few years ago when Ellis called upon Parsons to help out with a group of suicide survivors.
Parsons recalled her journey of coming to terms with losing a child and how she moved forward.
"I learned how to love myself with deep compassion," she said. "And it was a process. But each time I went a little further, another layer of deep pain and sadness I'd be faced with and then that created room within me."
Grief can't be hurried
Parsons said other people might put timelines on where somebody should be in their recovery.
"People are uncomfortable with grief," Parsons said. "Society is uncomfortable with people even talking about anything painful, they want you to just gloss it over and they want you back to who you used to be. And at some point you have to let them know, 'I'm not that person. I'm never going to be that person again.'"
Ellis said compassion and tolerance are the best ways to support those in pain, even if the changes we see in others scare us.
"We have to actually become comfortable with the uncertainty of people being just completely who they are in the moment," he said. "I think, you know, Leah is a great example of that and has been an inspiration to me as I've watched her move through her healing into life."
The sessions being offered by Ellis and Parsons will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Alderney Gate Public Library in Dartmouth and on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. at St. Andrews United Church in Halifax.
"Anyone who is actually feeling deeply despondent and wondering if there might be another way of approaching the holidays, we would welcome them," Ellis said.
Some of the tips Ellis and Parsons offer for getting through the season are:
- Observe traditions if you can, especially if there are youngsters who need support. But be flexible as well, and creative if needed.
- Plan ahead and acknowledge pain in some of those traditions.
- Try not to be numb and in denial. Allow yourself the freedom to feel sad and not put on a fake, happy face for the season.
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With files from CBC's Mainstreet