Rick Campanelli, left, and his family will be celebrating their first Christmas without the heart of their holidays, Antoinette, front left. The holiday season will not be the same without her, but they look forward to honouring her memory and perhaps start new traditions. Photo courtesy of Rick Campanelli

Dealing with grief at Christmas

  • December 22, 2015

It will be a sadder Christmas for Rick Campanelli and his family this year as they celebrate their first Christmas without family matriarch Antoinette, who passed away over the summer. Antoinette was the heart of the Campanelli family holidays. She prepared everything from the gifts to decorating the family home in Hamilton, Ont., and, of course, cooked Christmas brunch and dinner. The whole family rallied around Antoinette’s love for Christmas.

“As soon as December rolled around, my mom was up in the attic bringing down the Christmas decoration boxes,” said Campanelli.

“She was so in charge. My dad would be in charge of the fireplace and making the living room nice and warm. All the kids were responsible for waking up on time and get downstairs. And my mom took care of everything else.”

The ET Canada co-host said it has been strange to think about Christmas without his mom, but Campanelli said she will still be the smile on everyone’s face because the whole family is thinking about her all the time.

Christmas can be especially hard for families that are grieving loved ones. It can almost feel like a cultural obligation to treat the holidays with a lighthearted and cheery attitude, but it’s important to not mix the grief with a sense of guilt.

Alex Lopechuk is a registered social worker and co-ordinator of the New Beginnings program at Catholic Family Services Toronto. The program provides support and training to bereavement and marriage peer groups in parishes across the Archdiocese of Toronto.

In preparing for Christmas, Lopechuk said it is important for people to allow themselves to feel however they feel.

“When you’re experiencing grief over the holidays, it can also be mixed with your own sense of self-judgment... that somehow you should be overcoming this for the sake of family members,” said Lopechuk. “You have to give yourself a lot of self-compassion because the grieving process doesn’t follow the calendar.”

He said grieving families should consider the traditions they had in past years and decide which ones to continue this year. It’s important to acknowledge that celebrations will not be the same as before. Instead, it might be an opportunity to scale back or even start new traditions.

“We have expectations around Christmas that it is a time for families and so, whenever there is a loss in those families it is acutely felt,” said Lopechuk. “It sort of puts a spotlight on it and even more so if it’s a member of the family who played a special role in their family’s Christmas traditions and celebrations.”

Campanelli said his family will still have a large get together. It won’t be like the gatherings they used to have when they were younger, but he said it is important to keep this time of the year special for the family.

“I’m taking my dad away as well. For a few days right before Christmas, we’re going out west to do some skiing,” said Campanelli. “It’s been tough on my dad ever since my mom’s passing... so I thought my son and I will take him away and start a new tradition perhaps.”

Rick’s father, Rino, now lives in their family home alone and it has been difficult for him to adjust to the new change. Rick said it is almost as if he’s having to relearn everything. Although it may be hard to participate in Christmas celebrations, surrounding yourself with the love and support of loved ones is still the best way to cope with grief.

Lopechuk also said that it is important to allow himself that time alone with his thoughts, memories and emotions because that is also part of the grieving process.

There are days when Campanelli still still can’t believe his mother is gone. Antoinette was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just seven weeks before she died on Aug. 27 at the age of 72. The whole family was in shock for a long time. What helped Campanelli deal with his grief is by reaching out to his friends who have experienced the loss of a parent.

“Talking to people that had experienced the same thing. That really, really helped me out with what I was going through,” he said. “I would talk long hours to them about it and that has been therapeutic for me in my loss, so to share my story... if I can help someone else out with their grieving, I’m definitely going to do it.”

Campanelli said the family will always be grieving the loss of his mom but they will also be smiling because of her beautiful memory. Things will not be the same without her, but Campanelli finds comfort in knowing that she is watching over the family from Heaven.

“I was saying the rosary with my mom when she took her last few breaths and I was a complete wreck... but I knew my mom would want us all to go on strong and live that life for our own families,” said Campanelli.

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