Grieving families link hands to ease holiday sadness

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

The bright Christmas lights that decorate the Kachigian home in Allen Park belie a darkness that fell over the family in April when their beloved Nicole, 20, died following a horrific car accident.

The family plans a May charity walk in Nicole’s honor, to raise scholarships for a camp she enjoyed attending.

Kevin and Virginia Kachigian lost a bubbly, loving daughter, and their dreams for her future. Their son, Christopher Kachigian, 18, lost his only sibling, a sister who was there from the moment of his birth and shared every childhood memory.

“Your whole life you know somebody, and you imagine you’ll see them the next day,” said Christopher, a student at University of Michigan-Dearborn. “It’s just so sudden.”

The holidays can be crushing for someone mourning the loss of a loved one, but there are ways to diminish the pain and find moments of joy amid the sorrow, according to experts on the grieving process. They say families can reach out to hospitals, funeral homes and online grief support groups for ideas on how to cope with the holidays.

For the Kachigians, help came in the form of an invitation to attend a workshop on “Coping with the Holidays,” held at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, where their daughter died on April 25.

“It didn’t take us very long to say I think we should go,” Kevin Kachigian said. “Because it hurt so much that if you learn one thing, and we learned more than that, that you would come away hopefully with more peace of mind.”

For someone who is grieving, the holidays are especially painful because “that’s where all the memories come crashing back on us,” said chaplain Marianne Burnett, manager of Spiritual Care Services at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn.

“But you do not have to bury yourself in bed with the blankets around your head,” she added.

Kevin and Virginia Kachigian, with their son, Christopher, 18, hold a portrait of their daughter, Nicole, at their home in Allen Park this week. They are marking their first Christmas without Nicole, who died in an April car crash.

At the workshop, Burnett shared how she lost her own daughter in a car crash a decade ago, and some of the strategies she used to cope with her grief. Those include not feeling obligated to participate in every tradition or activity, and starting new traditions in honor of the person who died.

About 50 people who attended the workshop made holiday ornaments to remember their loved ones and decorated candles in their honor.

“We learned the steps of grieving and she gave us some great hand-outs regarding literally how to protect yourself during the holiday (like) to have an exit plan, things that you never think about,” Kevin Kachigian said.

As a result, the family is doing a few things differently this holiday season. They decorated the house, but Virginia allowed herself to skip sending Christmas cards. They started a new tradition in honor of Nicole, visiting the Lightfest at Hines Park in Westland.

The family also planned a charity walk in Nicole’s honor, to raise scholarships for a camp she enjoyed attending. The Walk for Nicole Kachigian will take place at 10 a.m. May 12, at Millward Park.

For the Kachigians, remembering funny stories about Nicole has been part of the healing process.

“It makes you laugh,” Virginia Kachigian said. “We don’t want her forgotten, we want to keep her in existence.”

Kevin Kachigian said time with friends can also bring comfort during the holidays. But even some of their closest friends have been hesitant to mention Nicole, or invite the family out.

“We’re laughing and joking about what she would think of this or that — that’s better than saying ‘hush,’ ” he said. “(Friends) may be walking on ice, but I’m out there with my ice pick saying to the closest of friends, ‘You prayed for us, come see us.’

“Let’s grab a cup of coffee, go for a beer.”

Nicole, who was enrolled at David Pressley School of Cosmetology, was thrilled to have found a career that suited her personality and artistic ability. She was devoted to her large circle of friends and a posse of cousins she’d grown up with in Allen Park.

Relationships mean so much to the family that they gathered 32 relatives and friends to see a showing of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Nicole Kachigian died one day before Christopher’s senior prom. The family said it will try to make positive choices to experience moments of joy in the midst of the sadness.

“You don’t have to be Greek, all you have to be is close, and most families can behave just like you saw if you watched that movie,” Kevin Kachigian said. “We went to the movies, then we came back here. We had food, it was loud as can be, and I love that, because it’s awfully quiet.

“People don’t know what to say, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they say nothing. And that ‘nothing’ needs to change. Mention it, tell me stories.”

Nicole died one day before Christopher’s senior prom at St. Francis Cabrini High School in Allen Park. Christopher was a member of the homecoming court and was voted Prom King. So the family was faced with an immediate choice.

“I wasn’t sure if we were going to go up there and watch — he was going to be crowned king,” Virginia Kachigian recalled. “I kind of said, Let’s go, let’s get out of the house. Let’s do something positive, it’ll make us smile.

“So we went up to (the prom), and it was nice to see him win. It made us smile. It was nice to be around all his classmates and teachers, and they all came up to us. And we were able to get pictures. It was all rainy, and the sun came out. You felt like she had some kind of control over the weather.”

Kevin Kachigian said the family will continue to try to make positive choices, to give themselves opportunities to experience moments of joy in the midst of the sadness.

“Our lives are never going to be the same,” he said, “but we are going to be happy.”

Coping with grief

Chaplain Marianne Burnett, manager of Spiritual Care Services at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, offered these suggestions to help grieving relatives and families get through the holidays:

■ Plan ahead for surprises that may evoke even greater feelings of loss

■ Be aware the holidays may be especially difficult; this is a normal reaction

■ Know that the holidays will not be the same; if you try to keep everything the same, you’re likely to be disappointed

■ Be flexible; doing things differently can still preserve some continuity with the past

■ Be careful not to isolate yourself; have time for yourself, but don’t cut yourself off from family and friends

■ Avoid added stress; decide what’s most important and what you can do without

■ Be easy on yourself; you can’t please everyone

■ Do what is comfortable for you