12 Things to Remember this Holiday Season

downloadThe holidays are often stressful times for many of us, but adding grief after the loss of a loved one can make this time of year feel particularly unbearable. For many, the message is: It’s the holidays, and we have a certain expectation of what that means, such as being happy, having a spotless perfectly decorated home, cooking large lavish meals, purchasing gifts which often includes extending ourselves beyond what we can really afford, and the list goes on.

Sometimes we spend the holidays with those we love, and sometimes we spend the holidays with family out of obligation rather than the true desire to be around them. Whatever our story is, grieving during the holidays can be harder than other times of the year (not indicating that it’s ever easy!). The children in our lives often see the holidays as the happiest time of the year and so we feel like we have to protect them and keep their innocence and special feelings for the holiday season intact. So, what are some things we can do if we are grieving or if we love someone who is struggling with the death of a loved one during this holiday season?

  1. Remember, you don’t have to do things the same as in the past.
  2. Focus on this year. What you choose to do this year doesn’t have to represent what you will do in future years.
  3. Have a clear plan, but if you need to deviate from your “plan” be okay with that.
  4. Don’t be hard on yourself for not being “yourself.”
  5. Be okay with saying NO or I don’t want to.
  6. Buy yourself something special that you think your loved one would have bought for you or wanted you to have.
  7. Take time out for yourself, sit or do whatever you need in that moment.
  8. Be present and check in with your kids. It’s okay to acknowledge as a family that the holidays can be a hard time.
  9. Talk as a family to determine what you would like to do this year and if there are any traditions you would like to change or new ones you would like to create.
  10. Make a donation to your loved ones favorite charity or do something in their honor.
  11. Ask for help… Everyone should have a personal helper during this time of year. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Some things you might want help with is cooking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping presents, shopping for gifts, sending cards or anything else on your list that seems taxing.
  12. Allow yourself to take time out to cry.

Image result for holiday candle stock photo

These are only a few of the things that came to my mind as I sit and try to write about something that often there are no words for. I do know I have heard many people over the years say many different things. Some people want to be alone, while others want to be surrounded by the ones they love. Like grief at any time of the year, everyone does it differently, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. No matter your situation, the main message here is to be easy on yourself this holiday season.

If you are reading this because you love someone who is grieving, please be patient and follow their lead. We all realize how precious life is and how important it is to support each other in our grief. My hope is that everyone who reads this will find some peace this holiday season and will take the time to remember and reflect on the memories they hold on to of those that have gone before them.

Judy Hildre-Pugh
Clinical Coordinator, SandCastles Grief Support Program

9 years with, from now on without: Finding the joy since your passing

A shared blog post from Casey Papp, former SandCastles participant and current volunteer. Casey is a Teen Buddy at SandCastles Camp Erin – Detroit and continues to support the SandCastles mission in so many ways. Thank you, Casey, for providing SandCastles with your endless compassion, insight, and passion for helping others!

9 years with, from now on without: Finding the joy since your passing

As of 2:28 am, October 31st 2018, I will be living more of my life without my mother than with.

For those who don’t know my story, my mother Carole passed away from a 4 and a half year long battle with ovarian cancer on a cold, wet, windy, Halloween in 2009.
A lot has happened in 9 years since my mother has passed away and this letter serves as a symbol of how far my dad and I have come in our grief journey, so here it goes:
“Dear Mom…

To continue reading Casey’s story, please visit her blog here.

Everyday Heroes…SUPER!

kapow.pngIn this day and age of Marvel Comics and superhero images all around, it makes me wonder what others think of when searching for help in hard times. Are we over-the-top with our understanding of how we can be helped? Are we looking for a superhero to make our hard times disappear? We’ve all been there, yet families in our SandCastles program come to us with hearts heavy, love lost, and memories of a time they truly wish they could magically get back. This life-changing event called death cannot be undone; however, a helping hand is never too far, neither light years away nor out of our reach.

We recently had the incredible opportunity with the Detroit Lions to have a number of families attend a Superhero Ball at Ford Field. Aside from having some fun, the hope was to allow our families to be treated with kindness, compassion, love, and a night out to remember during a time when “fun” may feel out of reach. The players were amazing and so supportive of all the children. The moment when a child in grief with a hurting heart can sincerely say, “I found a new friend,” that is a superhero moment!

Check out the Super Hero Ball here!

With the holidays looming, our families have taught us Halloween begins the series of significant calendar days to spark anticipation and concern as to how are we going to get through this???? Instead of looking forward to holidays, now these days may trigger their grief, causing more unhappiness than the happiness they traditionally create.

pumpkinIn this especially difficult season, here is your chance to be that Superhero for a child. Many times, families will share how overwhelmed they can feel to manage the tasks of any day, so here is some superhero advice: Show up and lend a hand. Be the helping hand to that mom, dad, grandparent, or other grieving adult to relieve them of some worry and the burdensome task of making it through this unchartered space. In grief, we are often feeling “out of control” and a simple offer to be an extra loving, helping person is a choice we can control. By the way, it will help YOU too!

“If you want happiness for an hour — take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day — go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year — inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime — help someone else.”
Chinese Proverb

So no need to grab your superhero cape or display any supernatural powers. With an open mind, a loving heart, and a sincere desire to help, you can magically transform a hurting heart to a healing heart in the life of a grieving child. Super cool? Absolutely! Out of this world? No way! This is the everyday hero calling to walk alongside a family in grief. Are YOU that hero?

Lizanne Chisholm
Clinical Coordinator, SandCastles Grief Support Program

Hello, My Name Is Helena, My Father Died, and This is My First Night

A post from guest blogger Helena Schutt, former SandCastles participant and current SandCastles volunteer. Helena “graduated” from SandCastles not long ago and chose to volunteer as a Teen Buddy at Camp Erin – Detroit and then as a Group Facilitator at our Rochester site. Thank you, Helena, for sharing your time, talents, and perspective with all of us!

IN THE BEGINNING, it was a struggle to do something as simple as walk out to the mailbox. A song on the radio, or driving past their work, or even the changing of the seasons can bring you back to memories that you won’t ever be able to relive. It’s been 6 years since my father passed and every day his presence fades a little more from my life. I know that’s a hard thing to read, but the truth of the matter is that grief isn’t transparent, it’s unclear, chaotic, and frightening.

Being a teenager alone is tough enough, add on the fact that I had to drive an hour to the hospital after class. I watched my father fade away and my mother juggle her own grief as well as inform whoever called, constantly sounding like a broken record. Even now it’s hard to go into hospitals. With a combination of the lighting and the smells, I get nauseous. It’s difficult to describe the feelings I had running through my own head. It was a crazy mix of denial and blocking out as much as I could. I knew that I never wanted to feel like that again.

I remember the anxiety building up when my mom wouldn’t answer her phone. My friends thought I was overreacting, but it was possible and it had happened before. Little things like this still affect me today; as an only child, I have the little voice in the back of my head that says, “what if…”

With each week came new challenges. Like things as simple as, how do we start the lawnmower? Or more complex things like, who’s going to stand next to me when all the girls take prom pictures with their dads? It can so difficult to let someone in after you have been exposed to so much disappointment and misdirected anger. Sometimes you have to be the parent when it’s just the two of you. It was issues like these that I could take to my small group. Even though we were all in different situations, we could all relate to one thing for certain.


There is no typical family model for our program; each family that comes into SandCastles is different. Some have lost children, some have lost a parent, some have lost grandparents, some have remarried, some an ex-spouse has died, and the list goes on and on. People don’t realize the amount of change that a family experiences after losing someone important in their lives. It is such a blessing that these families let us be a part of their grief journeys; I know how difficult it can be.

All of this can be so hard to maneuver alone, and thanks to Henry Ford SandCastles, I didn’t have to. I have been a part of SandCastles Grief Support since I was 16 years old. It was a few months after my dad passed away when we joined the Rochester site. After I closed out of the program, I decided to give back, first as a Teen Buddy at camp, then as a site volunteer. I am coming close to completing my first year as a site volunteer and having both perspectives of SandCastles helps me to connect on a whole other level, to the kids that I get to work with through their grief.


SandCastles is so grateful for dedicated volunteers like Helena who give back to grieving children and teens. If you’d like to become a SandCastles volunteer, please check out our volunteer opportunities here.

Mission Message from the Manager

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Spring has finally arrived with summer close on its heels. Doesn’t it seem like we barely get to enjoy one season before the next is here? Particularly this year, as spring was almost non-existent. And that is the way of life. If we don’t slow down enough to be mindful of the moment, it passes and is gone forever.

This year at the Castle, we are slowing down to plan for the future, taking time to ensure that services will be available to grieving children and families for many years to come. With this mindset, Build the Castle month was born. We asked for our families and friends to spread the word and support us through third-party events—and boy, did you show up.

Our hope was 15 events; we ended with 29. Our goal was $20,000 raised; we have already surpassed it. Thank you to those who hosted events—including our SandCastles families and volunteers—as well as to everyone who purchased items, donated to wear jeans or just to donate, ate meals and desserts, and overall enjoyed the events. We ARE in this together, and we are pausing to say a gigantic THANK YOU!!!

It’s not too late to participate. By visiting our Donate page and making a donation, you’ll add your name to an honored list of Castle Builders who are making grief support programs possible for children and families in Metro Detroit. Every grain of sand helps to Build the Castle. As we roll into summer and prepare for Camp Erin – Detroit 2018, please know that you are a valued part of our SandCastles community, and you are truly and meaningfully making a difference in the lives of those around you.

As we plan for the future together, please mark your calendar for the next exciting event at SandCastles. On September 20, 2018, we invite you to “Celebrate” as we honor over 20 years of serving grieving children. Join us at the historic Garden Theater for a night of tastings with some of Detroit’s finest restaurants, all under one roof. Save the date to escape after work for a fun evening of food, friends, and celebration.

In the meantime, let’s not rush it. Enjoy the summer. Get outside, spend time with loved ones, smile, and just be.

Peggy Nielsen
Program Manager, Henry Ford SandCastles

When the Ink Runs: Writing about Grief & Loss

There are no good words for this, I thought.

Standing on the beach, the sunset devastating and gorgeous on such a dark day, I could not imagine the world moving past this point. A young widow braced herself for a closed casket draped in American colors; family and friends gathered in an ethereal place so alive with memories, it was almost as if he hadn’t died.

I could not have written it then. But I wrote it later, when the words came more easily and I could remember the sunset through different eyes.

Grief is so much more than sadness. It’s anger, it’s guilt, it’s shame and confusion and frustration. It’s happiness, too, along with exhaustion and relief. The complexity of grief is perhaps what makes it such a monster to bear, to carry with us day after day. We know that grief is not linear and does not follow a neat pattern from start to finish, where one earns enough experience at the first stage to advance to the second and then the third. Instead, grief is a swirl of ups and downs, good days and bad, challenging us to grow and change to meet new hurdles as they arise. Time may help, but time alone is not enough.

So if grief is not an easy path from A to B, where does that leave us? What can we do to cope with our immeasurable feelings?

The usual list of “coping skills” is long, and each suggestion may not apply to every individual. But expressing our feelings, in some way or another, is as close to a guarantee for healing as we can possibly achieve, as it allows us to understand, interact with, and define what we feel.

Writing about grief is one form of creative expression that allows us to explore our feelings in many capacities. Through the years, research has not only sought to substantiate the benefits of writing about grief, but to provide guidelines for how to facilitate grief writing.

On the whole, it’s safe to say that no matter how you write your grief, there are benefits to putting words on the page. Writing can offer a changed perspective, opportunity for reflection, and empowerment to face difficult obstacles. Because writing is essentially a manifestation of our inner monologues and conversations, we can experience our thoughts in a way that allows contemplation and search for meaning. Regardless of your writing experience, skill, or style preference, expressing our feelings through the written word appears to be an effective method of coping.

How do we write about grief?

Start where you’re comfortable and where your feelings are. Journaling can be an excellent release for feelings “trapped inside,” feelings we don’t think we can share with others just yet. Keep your journal in a place you believe its privacy will be protected, and say whatever comes to mind.

Do you enjoy poetry? Jot down some words and see where they lead, in any order or structure (poetry does not have to rhyme!). Explore grief poetry from classic and modern poets, and see what feelings the words of others may evoke in you. I’m particularly partial to Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Maybe you’re itching to tell the story of what happened, the story of your person who died and the life they lived. Tell it! Tell it in whatever way you’d like. If it feels too vulnerable to use the facts, change the names and location of your story to create a “fictionalized” version of what happened. It is still, and always will be, your story.

Above all, remember the golden rule of art for coping: It’s about PROCESS, not product. The goal of creative expression is to express yourself, not to wow an audience. This writing is for YOU.

That said, writing can always be shared with others. You can choose readers who know your grief and will be sensitive to your feelings, or post (anonymously or otherwise) on a blog or forum. Be aware that public sharing may invite unwanted comments and feedback (beware the trolls!), but it could also garner support from others who are hurting in their grief, too. These are your words, and you can share them as you see fit.

I wrote that sunset I’ll never forget and the fierce cold of the water as we all jumped in. I wrote the dripping smears of mascara on aching faces, the running black ink of an agony still bright and new.

The ink ran through my pen, and I began to heal.

May 5, 2018:

Join us for a writing workshop for teens in grades 6 through 11, sponsored by New York Life and Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Krista Kirkpatrick
Program Coordinator, SandCastles Grief Support Program


Links included in this article:
Baikie, K.A. & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Volume 11 (5), pp. 338-346/ doi: 10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Frost, Robert (1923). Nothing Gold Can Stay. New Haven, CT: The Yale Review. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org.
Furnes, B. & Dysvik, E. (2010). A systematic writing program as a tool in the grief process: part 1. Patient Preference and Adherence, Volume 4. doi: 10.2147/PPA.S14864
Murray, B. (2002). Writing to heal. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Volume 33 (6), pp. 54.