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How to Support Grieving Loved Ones through the Holidays: Tips from Hospice Chaplain Leslie Ruster

Learning how to support grieving loved ones is critical when dealing with a terminal illness. Leslie Ruster, who joined CVHHH’s Hospice & Palliative Care team as a chaplain in July of 2021, says that her work is rooted in meeting people where they are at. “My relationship to spirituality is about helping people get in touch with what matters to them. It’s about connection and where people turn for comfort.”

Leslie, who was trained at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s Clinical Pastoral Education program, worked with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps as a public school teacher, in wilderness therapy, and as an herbalist supporting end-of-life patients. She was drawn to pursue chaplaincy after her father died. “I felt like the general culture around me was unfriendly toward outward signs of grief, which inspired me to pursue this work.”

Leslie works closely with members of CVHHH’s Hospice & Palliative Care team, especially with social workers Amanda Shiverick, LICSW, and Howard Hoffman, LICSW, to support patients and provide emotional guidance to people and their families as death nears.

“Expressions of suffering need to be witnessed, and they need to be heard,” says Leslie. “I want to help my patients and their families hold their grief and the pain that needs to be honored and met.”

Leslie recognizes that the holidays can be a challenging time of year for people, especially for those grieving the loss of family members or loved ones. “We are creatures of dates, and the holidays have an imprint on us on a very deep level, with memories of shared meals and memories of loved ones that can no longer be experienced.”

Here are Leslie’s tips for supporting someone (yourself, a friend, or a loved one) who is grieving this holiday season.

  • Seek community “The more we push our grief away, the more it tends to twist and get more difficult to deal with,” says Leslie. CVHHH offers regular free grief support groups (schedule here), which are available via Zoom and in person in Barre. “Being around other people who have lost someone and who can understand your feelings can be comforting,” says Leslie.
  • “Something I found is that it’s not my expertise or training that makes me effective, but the fact that I understand the experiences and emotions of grief. I have walked through the darkness and come out the other end.”
  • Show up Leslie says there are many ways to show your support. “A lot of people don’t know what to say. That’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. Just be there and be present to whatever is happening.”
  • Share memories Leslie says that many people nearing death fear being forgotten after they pass. Leslie says to talk about the person. Hold the memory of them in the present by sharing stories, and photographs. This can be so comforting for the person grieving.

Here are two recommendations from Leslie for free and/or reduced-cost mental health services. Coronavirus Online Therapy offers free and low-fee online therapy sessions for frontline workers. The Open Path Collective is a low or no-cost therapist finder website for people who cannot afford the mental health services they need.

If you have questions about how to support grieving loved ones or need help finding services, please email and a member of our care team will follow up.

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