Alan Pedersen, executive director for The Compassionate Friends, speaks to CDCR employees during the November Wellness Workshop.

Alan Pedersen, executive director for The Compassionate Friends, speaks to CDCR employees during the November Wellness Workshop. Photo courtesy Denise Pedersen.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Holidays can be a time of triggers for those grieving the loss of a loved one and can leave their support network confused about ways to help. According to a national speaker on the subject of grief, there are many things the griever and their supporters can do to help survive the holidays.

CDCR’s Employee Health & Wellness recently hosted Alan Pedersen, executive director of The Compassionate Friends, to speak at Headquarters.

“This is our first guest speaker, ever, for our lunchtime Wellness Workshop,” said Rosanna Rodriguez, CDCR’s Statewide Peer Support Manager.

Titled “Understanding Grief during the Holidays,” the Wellness Workshop covered “ways to understand grief during the holidays and strategies to make this time a little easier for yourself or someone you are supporting.”

“The triggers that bring on the strong emotions are all around us during the holidays,” Pedersen said. “When you think about the holidays, what comes to mind? Memories? Family? For someone in deep grief, this can be a time of intense pain.”

He said, if you have a coworker or friend who is grieving the loss of someone close to them, treat the person as though it is their first time experiencing the holidays. For the recently bereaved, it is the first time experiencing them without their loved one.

“Grief isn’t something to get over or end, but to carry,” Pedersen said. “The only way to go through grief is to grieve.”

Pedersen has first-hand knowledge of the grief process. His only child, Ashley, was killed in a car accident in August 2001 at 18 years old. He said most people are familiar with the stages of grief but those stages generally don’t apply to a grieving person.

“Grief is not a linear journey,” Pedersen said.

Shock, trauma and acceptance

Pedersen said when someone loses a loved one, the first thing they experience is shock.

“They may not be surprised if the person died, especially if they had a terminal illness, but they definitely experience shock,” he said. “Why? Because there is always hope. People always have hope.”

People in shock can appear to be OK on the outside but it’s like anesthetic. They are numb to what’s happening around them.

In the week after his daughter’s death, Pedersen picked out a casket, bought a plot, planned a funeral and comforted others who came to the service.

“It wasn’t until later … that the magnitude of what happened hit me,” he said. “That’s called trauma. We underestimate what grief does to us. Grief impacts every aspect of our lives. In the trauma phase, it affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

The last phase of grief is acceptance.

“Many of us in the grief world don’t like the word ‘acceptance’ because acceptance can mean agreement. I don’t agree my daughter should have died at 18,” he said. “When you come through trauma, you come to a choice-point. The first choice-point is to accept the challenge to survive. For someone who has lost a child, sometimes it’s a choice just to breathe.”

Acceptance is more about choosing to live life to its fullest.

“When (a bereaved person) chooses to reinvest in their life, you’ll see the spark in their eyes again,” he said.

Peer support is admirable

Pedersen said his hope is that large companies across the country will begin offering peer support, much like CDCR already does.

“It would make a huge difference,” he said. “There is one thing a bereaved person needs – validation. People ask, ‘What can I say?’ Let me tell you one thing you can say that can’t go wrong, ‘I’m here to hurt with you.’”

Pedersen applauded CDCR for its peer support program.

Learn more about grief and how to help others, as well as The Compassionate Friends and Open to Hope, by visiting CDCR’s peer support page: https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Wellness/psp.html

Read more tips for surviving the holidays (written by Alan and Denise Pedersen): surviving-holidays-tips

Resources outside CDCR

(Note: Websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer)

Open to Hope: https://www.opentohope.com/

The Compassionate Friends: https://www.compassionatefriends.org/home.aspx