Support group leader gives tips on handling holiday heartache

One tip Amy Hofius emphasized is for family members and friends to talk about the person who has died. Although for some it might feel uncomfortable, Hofius said the bereaved want to hear their loved one’s name and know they’re not forgotten.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

It’s one of the things connecting us all as human beings — everyone experiences loss.

For many, the holiday season is a time when the pain of losing a loved one is particularly acute.

“This season is so centered around family and traditions and get-togethers, so that’s really, really difficult,” said Amy Hofius, a grief support group facilitator at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd. “When we are grieving, we are not in that festive mood. We might not feel like celebrating. We might not feel like going to that Christmas party that we usually go to or hosting a Christmas dinner, and that’s OK.”

Hofius, a licensed social worker in the Grace Unit at the hospital, explained during a phone interview the holiday season is tough enough for people — with high expectations of perfection, an increase in social obligations and financial pressures — without the added struggle of working through grief. But there are steps grieving people can take to find some peace and comfort and ways those in their lives can help make that happen.

One tip Hofius emphasized is for family members and friends to talk about the person who has died. Although for some it might feel uncomfortable, Hofius said the bereaved want to hear their loved one’s name and know they’re not forgotten.


“For someone to even just mention a loved one’s name, it’s much easier to have an awkward conversation than no conversation at all,” she said. “I think people who are missing a loved one would love nothing more than to hear a story or a memory of a loved one from another family member or a friend, because grief can be very, very isolating. … Grief isn’t polite and grief isn’t clean, but we all go through it. It’s just part of our life.”

Steps to help alleviate grief

Find ways to include your lost loved one in holiday traditions. Hofius said this can take a number of forms, such as decorating a photo with festive garland to hang in the Christmas tree. “I know some families, too, who continue to hang a stocking on the mantle and they fill it with some fresh Christmas greens or some flowers,” Hofius said. “You can even still set a plate at the table for your loved one in honor to show we are still thinking of this person.”

Give yourself permission to change things up. This might be a great time to start a new holiday tradition, Hofius said, or decide it’s time to retire older ones. It’s important to know it’s OK to not be in a celebratory mood, she added.

Really what it comes down to is if you don’t feel up to celebrating, you can really make your holiday whatever you want it to be, whatever is easiest to do,” Hofius said. “If you don’t want it to have it necessarily on Christmas, you can pick another day. … I think it’s very important to give yourself permission to not really keep up with things or do the things you normally did.”

If possible, drive yourself to holiday functions. Hofius said this is advice she likes to give everyone facing grief this time of year, because even if people feel like they’re up for a social event at one time, those feelings can change quickly.

“If you ride with someone, you’re kind of stuck there,” she said. “After 20 minutes, you might feel like that’s all the energy you can muster. There’s a lot of physicality to grief, so we have to listen to our bodies.”

Take time to practice self-care. This is something that’s good to do year-round, but it can sometimes get lost in the fray during the holiday season, Hofius said. Caring for oneself includes getting adequate nutrition, setting at least 10 minutes aside for physical exercise, taking naps, partaking in soothing activities, journaling, or inviting over a good friend for a cup of coffee.

“It’s OK if you need to stay in your pajamas and watch movies,” Hofius said.


For some, self-care may mean finding comfort in one’s faith. Sharon W. Betters, executive director of MARKINC Ministries and a blogger who often writes about grief, suggests those of the Christian faith spend time reflecting on Jesus.

“You are so vulnerable to His voice and love because you are so broken. He promises to be ‘near the broken-hearted,’” Betters wrote in an article on “There are ‘treasures in the darkness, riches stored in secret places’ that He has for you — that I believe we do not experience in the light. Be on the lookout for those treasures designed to turn your heart toward Him.”

While it’s normal for people to find it difficult to take care of themselves when grieving a recent loss, Hofius said it’s good to recognize when it’s becoming detrimental to your health.

“I don’t really want to give a time frame. … Everyone grieves differently,” she said. “After a certain amount of time if you are not able to eat or if you are not able to sleep, or you’re noticing you can’t keep up with daily self-care like hygiene, please check it out with your primary doctor.”

Find a grief support group. It may be beneficial to spend time with people who are experiencing similar emotions and challenges, Hofius said. There are a number of support groups that meet in the Brainerd lakes area. Crow Wing Energized, a local health and wellness movement, compiled a list of support groups focused on a variety of needs, including grief. Visit for the list.

A new session of Essentia Health’s “Coping with Grief” support group is set to begin Jan. 7. The group meets 3-5 p.m. Tuesdays for seven consecutive weeks. It’s free to attend and there’s no registration required; those interested can just show up at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

“Unfortunately there isn’t a pill we can give someone — take this and you’ll feel better or read this and you’ll feel better,” Hofius said. “There isn’t a field guide on grief, but it’s just being with other people and hearing their stories and knowing you’re not alone, and that you, too, can get through this.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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