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Loss often intensifies during holidays

Maui nonprofit offers bereavement support and insight

Brad Apo (header) and Kaena Poouahi turned in the fastest double mugging time at the Makawao Rodeo on July 2, 2016, with a 30.81. A well-known Upcountry cowboy, Apo, 38, died Sept. 2 after being pulled unresponsive from waters off Hana the day before. Family members must now cope with the first holiday season without their loved one. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — Makawao resident Kelsey Apo Nae’ole said she used to look forward to the holidays.

This year is much different.

Thursday was her first Thanksgiving without her older brother, Brad Apo, 38, who died in a tragic ocean accident off Hana on Sept. 2. The loss of the well-known Upcountry cowboy, who had a slew of rodeo accolades, sent ripples through the Maui community.

His death continues to impact those who knew him best, especially during important family times.

“To be honest, this whole week has been tough for me,” Nae’ole wrote in a Thanksgiving post online. “Not looking forward to the holidays like I once did, knowing he won’t be there, enjoying it with his wife and two girls.”

Both repeat champs, Brad Apo and daughter Lehiwa Apo pose with their All-Around Cowboy and All-Around Cowgirl saddles at the end of the 62nd Makawao Rodeo on July 2, 2017. Apo’s death has left a family grieving during the holidays, a difficult time for many who have lost loved ones. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Grief has no end date, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, according to Joyce Lechuga, a registered nurse and Hospice Maui bereavement coordinator. The holidays can present an especially difficult time after losing loved ones to death.

“For one, we have a lot of memories,” Lechuga said Friday. “We relive our times and our moments with our loved ones, and that brings up pain and grief to the point where some people want to avoid the holidays completely.”

Instead of bottling up emotions, Lechuga and other grief counselors advise people to embrace the difficult feelings. She recommended memorializing loved ones, finding supportive people and creating spaces to mourn.

“People grieve the way they grieve, and it takes as long as it takes,” Lechuga said.

Sometimes, grieving people will may judge themselves based on how other people mourn.

“People say, ‘Oh, she went back to work in one or three days,’ or ‘He didn’t cry much.’ They judge what they’re doing against what someone else is doing,” she said. “We recommend people don’t do that because your story is your story and it’s personal.”

Adding to challenges of losing a loved one, Lechuga said today’s society encourages people to suppress sadness and grief.

“Culture says when the going gets tough, the tough gets going,” she said, but that sweeping of difficult emotions under the rug keeps them unhealed. The emotions end up interfering with “our level of living and of joy.”

“When we have a big crisis, somebody dies, our mate leaves us, or we lose our jobs, that’s often when our heart is most open — not because we want it to be, but because the event busted it open. We are in grief,” she said. “If we don’t deal with the death of a loved one and grieve them, grief stays down there and when another grief happens, you still have the previous death to mourn. You are now mourning a past grief as well.”

For Lechuga, creating rituals and memorializing loved ones helps her cope. Her mother, who loved Christmas, went into the hospital on Christmas Eve a little more than a decade ago and died shortly thereafter. Annually, Lechuga sets up her Christmas tree to memorialize her mom.

“I have little ornaments for her that I put up,” she said. “I have to tell you, it gives me a lot of pleasure to tell you how dynamic she was to have the energy to decorate the house the way she did.”

Lechuga, along with other staff at Hospice Maui, offers a free weekly grief support group for people who have lost loved ones to death called “H.E.A.L: Helping Ease a Loss” at its Wailuku location at the top of Mahalani Street.

“Often, people would feel that they can’t talk about this with anyone so they remain private,” she said. “For most people, getting support and having a support group is very helpful. You get to hear other people’s stories and what they went through and realize you’re not alone.”

Although Hospice holds the support group for people who have recently lost loved ones, Lechuga said organizers are not rigid about the time frame of the loss. Sometimes, after many years, something happens that may trigger a “grief burst,” where a person is back in emotional turmoil.

“That is not unusual,” she said. “It’s all part of healing.”

Also, the nonprofit group presents special grief workshops, community education and services and an annual Memorial Day service. The nonprofit collaborates with Na Keiki O Emalia to provide grief support to children, teens and their families.

For Nae’ole, writing and spending time with loved ones are the things that bring solace.

Her authentic, moving Facebook posts show images of her vibrant, strong brother, often in a cowboy hat. Apo, a Maui High School graduate, was a 2017 Makawao Rodeo champion and hailed as one of the top team ropers in the state.

He is survived by his wife, Lei Apo; daughters Lehiwa and Lahela Apo; parents Bryce and Leona Apo; brother Corey (Misty) Apo; sisters Kelsey (Kekupa’a) Naeole and Lacey Apo (Ryan Cabral); and grandmother Madeline “Nina” Tavares.

“Brother, you will be in our thoughts and conversations all day as we reminisce of our memories with you,” Nae’ole wrote on Thanksgiving Day. “Giving thanks for the time we had with you.”

On Friday, Nae’ole said her brother’s death is still a shock. She still will think to call or message him. “It can take a moment to remember that he’s not around,” she said.

“Give extra love today to those who surround you,” she said. “Enjoy the moments, the memories because you never know when they will be your last.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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How to deal with grief

Bereavement Magazine offered tips for people dealing with a loss during the holidays in its November/December 1989 edition. Hospice Maui includes this handout in a packet of information it gives to people attending grief workshops and support groups.

• PLAN AHEAD. Bereaved individuals who experience the most difficulty with the holiday season are those who have given little thought to the challenges that may come. Consider ahead of time what may be expected of you, both socially and emotionally, as well as your own preferences.

• ACCEPT LIMITATIONS. Grief consumes most of your available energy no matter what the season. The holidays place even more demands on your time and emotions. Plan to lower expectations to accommodate current needs.

• MAKE CHANGES. Your circumstances have changed. Make necessary alterations in holiday plans to accommodate the changes. Consider changing your surroundings, rituals, and/or traditions to lessen stress. Let people know that this year may be somewhat different.

• SIMPLIFY. Limit social and family commitments to suit your available energy. Shop early or use catalog sales. Re-evaluate priorities and forgo unnecessary activities and obligations.

• ASK FOR, ACCEPT HELP. Accept offers for help with holiday shopping, decorating, cleaning, cooking, etc. Chances are friends and family are looking for ways to lessen your burden at this time of year. Allow those who care about you to offer their support in concrete ways.

• INFORM OTHERS OF YOUR NEEDS. Give family and friends the tools they need to help you through the holidays. Be specific with them about your preferences and desires and keep them up-to-date when those needs change.

• BUILD IN FLEXIBILITY. Learn to “play it by ear.” There’s no concrete formula for learning to deal with loss. You are the foremost authority on what is best for you, and your needs may legitimately change from day to day. Accept fluctuations that must occur when walking in unknown territory and learn to take each moment as it comes.

• GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION. Allow breathing space and expect fluctuations in mood and perspective. The bereaved work overtime. Not only is life more complicated, but all energy is siphoned into mental and emotional resolution. Grieving is nature’s way of healing the mind and heart from the greatest injury of all. Allow yourself the grace of limping until your wounds have healed and you can learn to walk again.