Seniors who walked into Center in the Park's "Beat the Holiday Blues" workshop Thursday morning were quiet. Some sat beside a friend, but most sat alone, attentive to retired licensed social worker and bereavement counselor Barbara Bruce's presentation. Within an hour, many of them would break that silence with shattering stories of their loss.

Bruce began the workshop in the senior center's auditorium, located in Germantown's Vernon Park, 5818 Germantown Ave., by identifying other types of loss besides death as some examples of secondary losses people usually fail to identify. Relationships. Trust. Control. The sense of fairness or justice.

She also discussed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression that occurs during a particular time of the year, most often during the holiday season.

"People tend to go through mourning around holidays. The fall tends to be really traumatic because of hidden Seasonal Affective Disorder. A lot of folks have it and don't understand why they go through the 'blues,' but the days are shorter," Bruce said. "Folks are doing their Christmas shopping and preparing for the holidays, and when you're trying to stay upbeat and you've had a major loss in your life it creates an emotional conflict. A session like this allows folks to come together and to share the commonality of loss and not to feel isolated."

People who become "morbidly depressed" require medication, but the first level of treating SAD is talking, Bruce said. Several seniors at the workshop took that first step in healing as Bruce finished her presentation.

Talking it out

Lurene Lenear, 72, once had two sons. She now has one. Her second son died on New Year's Eve in 2009 at the age of 50.

"He died in my daughter's house. He had cancer of the esophagus so we were able to nurse him until he died," Lenear said.

Less than two years later, on Sept. 15, Lenear's daughter who had helped take care of her ill brother also passed away.

"A week after she [turned] 43, she was killed in a car accident. She wasn't married. She had a fiancé. She didn't have children, and I was her daughter," the grieving mother said. "She did everything for me. My daughter helped me with my son's death, and I came out of it."

With the help of family, friends and her church, Lenear says she has found solace but admits the wound will take time to heal.

"I accept the things that I can't change and know the difference," she said.

Holidays are a particularly difficult time for some

Lenear usually spent the holidays with her daughter. This year, she'll join her four sisters, ages 83, 81, 79 and 69. After hearing Bruce at the workshop, Lenear said she felt inspired.

"I learned that I'm not alone. I've also learned that dying is a part of life, part of living. This class was able to comfort other people, and other people could comfort me."

Another woman, Ms. Stevens, 70, who declined to give her first name, dabbed a tissue at her eyes as she talked about her distress in coping with her 32-year-old daughter's death last year.

She died of a rare disease that attacks vital organs, known as Takayasu's arteritis, Stevens said. More than a year later, she cannot accept her absence and is often reminded of her.

"I was in the supermarket and I saw a young lady. I did a double take. She looked so much like my daughter," Stevens said. "I just stood there in the parking lot staring at her, and she looked at me as if to say, 'Do I know you?' and I said, 'I'm sorry for staring, but you look so much like my daughter.' And I said, 'Could you just hug me?' And she did. She came over, and she hugged me."

Many other women in the crowd of about 20 shared heartfelt stories of struggling to let go of deceased loved ones. Bruce reminded them that every individual grieves at a different pace and that no one should feel shame for holding onto memories or even old items belonging to the deceased.

First-time event

This was the Center in the Park's first year hosting "Beat the Holiday Blues." The workshop idea came from "Beat the Blues," a research program the Center has conducted since 2008 with the help of Thomas Jefferson University's Center for Applied Research in Aging and Health.

Center in the Park has been able to operate "Beat the Blues" thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Through the grant, the center was able to hire a social worker to visit seniors in their homes and stage interventions for those suffering from depression.


for NewsWorks