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Coping With Grief Amidst Holiday Cheer

A girl in a red jacket stands next to a tree with the sun setting in the background.
Holly Hutchings

The surge of holiday joy permeating the air from Thanksgiving through New Year’s can make a swell of grief for those who’ve experienced loss. 

Holiday music, family traditions and festive decorations meant to bring joy can be reminders of sorrow that illuminate just who is missing from the dinner table - and holiday grief is especially tough on children. Our reporter Holly Hutchings spoke to Caylee Kuraszewski, a 15-year-old from Reno who lost her sister to suicide, about how grief affects her this season. 

This story includes discussion of the effects of suicide. If you or someone you know is suffering this holiday season, there are outlets for help. Talk to a doctor or mental health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

Caylee Kuraszewski was soaking up her summer break, the year before eighth grade. She was looking forward to just one more year in middle school, and with high school approaching she felt secure because her older sister Melissa had told Caylee that she would help her through those pivotal four years. Before that could happen, however, Melissa lost her life to suicide, and at just 13 years old Caylee’s childhood story was forever changed. 

“I thought, ‘Who’s going to help me through the next four years?' " Caylee said. “I was very angry. I was mad at the world for treating her the way that it did. For someone to take their own life, there must have been an edge. That edge, she got pushed over. ”

Caylee is one of many kids who have faced the harsh reality of death early in their young lives. According to the OMEGA Journal of Death and Dying, one in five children will experience the death of someone close to them in their childhood. Although grief is almost universal, it can show itself in many ways. For kids who have lost someone close to them, they often struggle trying to navigate their own grief, as well as how to handle the grief they see in the adults around them.

During the holidays, Caylee says her feelings are magnified. When she thinks of Christmas, she remembers how her sister loved their grandma’s snickerdoodle cookies and how she playfully fought with Caylee for the chance to be the first person who hung the Scooby Doo ornaments on the tree. When Caylee sees the cartoon ornaments or smells the cinnamon of Melissa's favorite treat she doesn’t push those feelings aside.

One of the primary ways that Caylee gets through her evolving grief is by remembering the little things her sister did - and talking openly about them. She says her sister would want her to be as happy as she possibly can and spend the season with their family.

“Don’t dwell that she’s not here. You can have your moments [of sadness] and everything, but the holidays are a time to appreciate what you have and acknowledge that you got to spend time with her, and that’s what counts," Caylee explained.

On days like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, many offices and businesses are closed and life slows to a crawl. These still moments often lead the bereaved to be alone in their thoughts and can cause an uptick in their pain, as well as leaving them at odds with the joyfulness surrounding them.

As Caylee reflects on her sister's life, she remembers the celebratory energy Melissa always brought to the holiday season.

“Whenever she would walk into a room, there was always a light,” Caylee said. “Always, always, always. There was always something to laugh about or look forward to. So, I think [me] carrying that on into the holidays is what she would want most.”

Caylee has had help on her journey through the grieving process. Her mom Katherine is her best friend and the person she says she goes to the most when she wants to talk about Melissa. Caylee has also found hope through a local organization in Reno that specializes in grief and loss services for children, teens and families. She began attending group sessions at The Solace Tree, at first feeling like her grief was not big enough to be there, as others struggled with deaths of parents. But by her third visit, she was freely sharing her story with people she felt truly understood her.

“Emilio, the owner, gave me something that nobody else could,” she said. “He let me tell my story. He didn't tell me he was sorry. He didn't try to make it better.”

Caylee says that although her sister Melissa was a bright light, she also battled inner turmoil that inevitably led to her passing. At this time of year, and always, her message for others is to check in on those who look like they may be struggling to offer them help.

Grieving children and families can learn more about The Solace Tree in Reno by going to http://www.solacetree.org/.

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