Holiday Healing

Libraries offer grief programs through holiday season

December 13, 2023

Stock image of two women leaning on one another in a support group.
Photo: Adobe Stock

Though often referred to as the most wonderful time of year, the holidays can be the exact opposite for those mourning the loss of family or friends.

El Progreso Memorial Library (EPML) in Uvalde, Texas, is one of an increasing number of libraries, with help from community partners, organizing programming about handling grief during the holiday season.

EPML has been a center for grief recovery since May 25, 2022. The day before, the community faced the unimaginable tragedy of losing 21 community members—mostly young children—in the Robb Elementary School shooting. EMPL, in addition to providing regular library services, has evolved into a healing hub. Therapists and counselors use its meeting rooms to work with locals, and staffers have hosted various care programs for children and adults.

“We want the library to be seen as that third place,” says EPML Director Mendell Morgan, “but more than that, a safe haven, a refuge, and a place where everyone is welcomed.”

For the last two years, EMPL has held holiday grief seminars in partnership with the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, hosted by a local social worker and public speaker. Attendees receive information about the different types and stages of grief and tips for navigating festivities.

“People always are thinking of loved ones at the holidays,” Morgan says. “It can be a difficult time with grief, but especially with what happened here, that was the real impetus for putting such a focus on it.”

‘Something that connects us’

Kim Pangracs, family counselor with Alberta Health Services (AHS), says there is a noticeable increase in requests for grief support this time of year. AHS partnered with Calgary (Alberta) Public Library (CPL) in Canada to host three “Grief and Managing the Holidays” programs at different branches as part of its ongoing Healthy Living series.

“A lot of it is anxiety around the unknown,” Pangracs says. “For many people coming to our sessions, it’s going to be their first Christmas without their loved one. They don’t know how they’re going to manage [or] how they’re going to navigate other family members that have expectations on them for how the holidays should look.” There’s value, she adds, in providing this guidance in non-clinical, non-intimidating spaces like libraries.

After becoming Denver Public Library’s (DPL) manager of Older Adult Services in 2019, Amy DelPo says the most common feedback she received from patrons 50 and older is that they needed a place to process the losses that accumulate with age.

This year, DPL hosted a four-part series called “Facing the Holidays: Loss and Grief During the Happiest Time of the Year,” held from the week of Thanksgiving through mid-December at its Ford-Warren branch. The program was intended for ages 50 and older but was open to all adults.

As institutions that foster community, connection, and lifelong learning, “I think libraries are the perfect place for it,” DelPo says.

Led by a counselor from HeartLight Center, a local grief support nonprofit, “Facing the Holidays” touched on topics including giving yourself permission to not participate in the holidays (or to participate in a limited way), creating memorials for lost loved ones, and writing letters or journaling as part of the healing process.

DelPo says some participants mentioned losing parents, while others were mourning children or siblings. Some deaths were sudden and others not. But while the details of each situation are unique, their shared experiences on their grief journeys have allowed them to connect and relate to one another.

“Universal is almost too trite a word for it, but it is something we will all share at some point,” DelPo says. “On the one hand, it can be something that isolates us from each other. But it also can be something that connects us.”

Small programs, big impact

“Facing the Holidays” was structured as a multipart series, DelPo says, to allow attendees to build their comfort level with the conversations and relationships with one another. However, CPL and Ocean County (N.J.) Library (OCL) went with a one-time approach. The Senior Services team at OCL offered an hour-long program at four branches in October and November.

This structure is “more doable for our senior community,” says Laura Beth Davis, Librarian III in OCL’s Senior Services department. “They fit a lot of our programs into their errands and day-to-day activities” and often rely on local public transit that runs during business hours.

Universal is almost too trite a word for it, but [grief] is something we will all share at some point. On the one hand, it can be something that isolates us from each other. But it also can be something that connects us. —Amy DelPo, manager of Older Adult Services, Denver Public Library

OCL tapped New Jersey’s Senior Citizens Activities Network to do the presentation, which went through the five stages of grief and provided holiday-specific advice, like how to embrace changing traditions and advocating for one’s needs with family and friends. Partnering with an organization that has experience engaging with audiences about challenging subjects like these was a must for OCL—and should be for other libraries as well, says Davis.

“We want to handle it with sensitivity, understanding, and respect,” Davis says. “It’s going to bring up a lot of emotions, and you have to have a presenter who can handle that.” At CPL, Pangracs notes, professional counselors ran the sessions alongside volunteers who shared about their lived experiences managing the loss of a loved one.

OCL’s most-attended session had around 10 participants. Other libraries also noted small turnouts. But DPL’s DelPo doesn’t consider this a negative. She intentionally capped registration at 12 participants to leave ample sharing time for everyone, something she recommends to other libraries interested in offering similar programs.

“It’s going to be one of those programs that may be high impact because of what’s happening,” DelPo says, “not necessarily because of the numbers you have.”

EPML Archivist Tammie Sinclair, who is leading a project to archive materials related to the shooting, says that before May 2022, mental health was not openly discussed in Uvalde like it is now. Sinclair, who grew up in the area, recalls the stigma previously associated with addressing these issues due to generational and cultural divides.

“But after the tragedy, there was so much support and so many people saying, ‘It’s okay,’” she says. “I think some people just need to hear that. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel, it’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to have emotion, whatever that emotion might be.”


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