Day of love brings grief to the surface for some
by Naomi Carniol
(Reprinted by permission of Naomi Carniol; First published in the Centretown News Friday, February 11, 2005)
Every February, stationery stores are full of heart-shaped cards. Restaurants advertise romantic three-course dinners. It's a time to celebrate love. But for a person who has just lost a spouse or long-time partner, Valentine's Day can be one of the toughest days of the year. On Valentine's Day, Bill Drake used to buy a box of candy for his wife Diane and take her to a restaurant. "Going out for dinner was one of our pleasures," Drake says.
Five years ago, Diane was diagnosed with cancer. On Valentine's Day in 2001, Diane had a seizure. "That was the last we could communicate. She couldn't speak after that," Drake says. Less than a month later, Diane died. Until recently, Drake found Valentine's Day painful. "You kind of dread all of those holidays and special days," he says.
Psychologist Laura Slap-Shelton says Valentine's Day can create an overpowering sense of grief for those who have lost a loved one. She runs a website that provides information for people who are grieving at www.griefandrenewal.com. "Valentine's Day is a day when you are supposed to be focused on your primary significant other. For a person who is grieving, it just highlights their absence," she says in a telephone interview from her practice in Biddeford, Maine.
If someone's partner died a long time ago, Valentine's Day can still be difficult, says Ottawa psychotherapist Madeline Dietrich. "When people have been in a relationship for a long time and a partner dies, it's a really major adjustment that can go on for a long time," she says.
How difficult the holiday will be depends on how a person once celebrated with his or her former partner, says Hilda Sabadash, program co-ordinator for the Ottawa chapter of Bereaved Families of Ontario. "If Valentine's Day was a huge thing, where their husband always gave them a dozen roses and then this year on Valentine's day, there are no roses, that can be a big difference . . . and they'll really feel it."
People try to cope with the day in different ways. "Sometimes people buy their own roses. Sometimes members of the family buy them roses. Some people go to Las Vegas and completely forget the day. It's whatever will offer them comfort," Sabadash says. "Some people will just stew and cry all day, and that's okay too."
Slap-Shelton suggests writing a letter to the person who died. "It's a way to feel the sense of connection and also to express feelings that have no place to go," she says. "It can be very therapeutic and comforting for some people." She also encourages people to concentrate on other types of love in their lives, like the love they share with their children or friends. "It's not a replacement for the relationship, but just something that helps a person to feel connected," she says.
Dietrich has some advice for people who find the day difficult: "Keep reminding yourself this feeling is not going to last forever, that this is a bad day and tomorrow will be different."
For Bill Drake, Valentine's Day slowly got easier as he moved past Diane's death. He sold their home and got more involved in a church. While Valentine's Day is not one of his favourite days, Drake says he no longer dreads it or finds it painful. "I've pretty well started a new life."
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