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SCOTTS VALLEY — People who have lost loved ones are invited to honor their memories with candles, music and shared remembrances at an annual interfaith memorial service Thursday, the first in a series of events sponsored by Hospice of Santa Cruz to help people navigate their grief during the holidays.
“It’s a chance to formally remember and to be present with others who are doing the same thing,” said Patricia O’Brien, an Aptos resident who lost her husband of 42 years last year.
O’Brien, who volunteered many years as a hospice visitor, used to attend the annual memorial service with her husband to remember friends and family. This year she expects to join with some of the members of a hospice grief support group that she attended last year.
“There’s an element of witness to it,” O’Brien said. “We witness the loss of loved ones and colleagues and I think there’s a value of doing that together, to acknowledge loss.”
The service, to be held at the Resurrection Church in Aptos, is sponsored by Hospice of Santa Cruz County and several local mortuary chapels. The hospice agency, which is charged with supporting patients and their families during the final months of life, is expanding its grief support offerings in the coming year to meet needs in the community.
The holiday-timed events are aimed at supporting people through a time when grief can be especially poignant.
“Seeing everybody happy and rushing around oftentimes makes somebody sadder,” said Mary Schindler, director of grief support services for Hospice. “It’s a constant reminder that their loved one isn’t with them this holiday season.” Traditional tasks such as sending out holiday cards and setting the holiday table are suddenly more difficult. “Lots of decisions have to be made around the holidays.”
People can bring photos of loved ones or remembrances to place on tables at the interfaith service. There is music, discussion in English and Spanish and practical suggestions for the holidays. Attendees are invited to light a candle and speak the name of the person they have lost.
“It’s a really beautiful ceremony,” said Cathy Conway, vice president of Communications & Philanthropy. “It feels like we’re all holding that space.” People can take home their candle and light it through the season as well.
Last year, about 1,230 people received grief support services through Hospice of Santa Cruz with the help of about 40 trained volunteers. Another 250 people volunteer to support the organization with patient and family visits, governance and fundraising. The agency, which hired a new executive director, Michael Milward, about 18 months ago, opened a new End-Of-Life office in Watsonville earlier this year and is expanding its grief support program throughout the county.
The groups are a vital resource for people experiencing the depths of grief.
Initially, for many months, “the grief feels like bottomless and one wonders if there really is an end out there or if you’re just going crazy,” said George Merilatt who lost his partner about four years ago and participated in a hospice grief group for people who lost spouses. “It was helpful to me to hear other people’s stories, to be able to understand that our experiences were similar. It was still horrible but it felt more normal.”
The group’s grief facilitator said that people need to tell their stories 100 times. The group was a place to do that, he said. Both O’Brien and Merilatt said their groups deeply bonded in that short time and continued to meet informally after the eight weeks were concluded.
“We could call each other any time and we would do that,” Merilatt said. “The phone would ring at midnight and we could talk. Having that kind of support and knowing that people could call and we could call was a real lifeline.”
In addition to providing individual services for people of all ages, ongoing weekly drop-in groups and eight-week grief groups for spouses and partners, people who are seniors and parents of adult children, there will be new groups for hospice patients, caregivers of hospice patients and, in partnership with Jacob’s Heart, groups for parents who have lost young children. There will also be a new walking group and a group for people who have been through one of the eight-week hospice support groups who would like to do expressive arts. Services are available in Spanish and English.
Follow Sentinel correspondent Jennifer Pittman at Twitter.com/jenniferpittman
AT A GLANCE
Holiday Hospice Grief Support
Interfaith Memorial: 7 p.m. Thursday at Resurrection Catholic Community Church, 7600 Soquel Drive, Aptos. The event offers an opportunity for people of all faiths to share and remember those people they have loved and lost. The program includes music, a candle lighting ceremony and a brief talk on preparing for the holidays. English and Spanish speakers welcome. Attendees are encouraged to bring a photo or remembrance of their loved one/s to display. Refreshments will be provided after the service.
Bringing Light to the Holiday Season: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Hospice of Santa Cruz County, 940 Disc Drive, Scotts Valley. Adults and children are invited to share stories and remembrances of loved ones who have passed. Creative activities will help bring light to the holiday season. Free, but donations appreciated. For information or to reserve a spot in a group, call 430-3000.
Coping with Grief in the Holidays: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Nov. 20, Hospice of Santa Cruz County, 940 Disc Drive, Scotts Valley. Join with other adults to remember the gift of love and learn tools for coping with grief and loss. Free, donations accepted. For information or to reserve a spot in a group, call 430-3000.
Tree of Lights: Dec. 8, time to be announced at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, 7807 Soquel Drive, Aptos. People are invited to remember their loved ones with a donation for a light on the remembrance tree. All are welcome to the free tree lighting ceremony with music. For information, visit www.hospicesantacruz.org or call 430-3000.