Virginia Booth had six years to prepare for her husband's death, yet his passing in July was still difficult to deal with.
Now, as the holiday season approaches, Booth may be starting a new grieving process. This will be the first Christmas she has spent without her husband in 55 years. Though she will spend the time with family, the memories of past gatherings in her Linthicum home will be hard to forget.
"The silence in the home breaks your heart," Booth, 72, said.
One comfort during her struggle was the Arundel Hospice, which helped her and Raymond deal with his dying from cancer.
Booth attended the support group with two other people. Their terminally ill spouses did not go along.
"We would cry for an hour," she said. "We would cry for each other, we would cry for everything. We weren't afraid to cry because we were all going through the same thing. I watched Raymond die inch by inch. Without the hospice program, I don't think I could have gone through it."
Booth is not alone. Coordinators for two hospice programs in the county say attendance at seminars and support groups grows as the Christmas season approaches. They say people who have just lost close family members feel alone and isolated during what is traditionally a family-gathering time.
"For many, it is the first holiday season they have been without a loved one," said Peggy Snow, bereavement coordinator for the hospice program at Anne Arundel Medical Center. "Everything is different."
Betty Asplund, who runs the bereavement center for Arundel Hospice, agrees. She sponsors seminars before and after the holiday season just to help people get through. Seminars work better for some people, she said, because they don't have to tell personal stories, as they would in a support group.
This year, 37 people attended. Twelve later signed up for support groups.
Asplund said the fear of being alone at Christmas or Hanukkah is the one of the hardest problems to overcome. She said even parties with friends can make people feel isolated.
"It may be a party you normally went to with your spouse, and you see other couples very happy. They may be dancing, and you are not dancing," she said. "You want to cry."
Friends and family members must try and understand what the bereaved is going through, she said. "When they say, 'I'm not up to it this year,' it does not mean they won't be up to it next year."
But Snow said people should make sure not to leave the bereaved out of holiday plans. "Call them and invite them to your home. Offer yourself as support. Go pick them up and bring them to your house. Don't take their word they will call you; it is hard to pick up the phone and ask for help."
Asplund said the advice she gives the bereaved depends on how they are dealing with their grief. She said she encourages them to "invite the dead person to be a part of the holidays" by putting up Christmas stockings or setting a place at the table.
"That brings the person back into the day," she said. "You are not ignoring them."
Asplund said that many elderly take advantage of the seminars and support groups -- not surprisingly, as Snow pointed out, given that many elderly people are losing spouses, family members and friends.
"If they don't have a family to bring them, we don't see them," Asplund said. "But we are seeing more of the elderly because I think they are letting their needs be known."
Hospice programs also help people who must deal with terminally ill family members. Those care-givers too can have special needs during the holidays. Many don't feel they have time to decorate a tree or buy gifts.
Kay Farrell, a staff nurse for the Anne Arundel Medical Center Hospice program, said she makes home visits with volunteers who help get some of the holiday chores done.
"For many people, it may be the last holiday they spend with their loved one," she said. "They don't feel like celebrating. We enforce that it may be their last Christmas together, but they are living now and they need to celebrate that."
For more information on programs at areas hospices, call the Anne Arundel Medical Center Hospice program at 267-1372 or the Arundel Hospice at 987-2003.