Supporting Those with Grief and Loss During the Holidays
By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
For many of us, October is the doorway to holiday season. Travel plans begin to be organized, Christmas shopping is begun, requests for time off from work during the holidays are made, and with holiday-related activities are planned by those looking forward to the festivities. However, for some, the holidays are a stark reminder of the loss of loved ones who will not be around to join festivities.
The holiday season, while celebrated by many, can result in a sense of dread by those who feel that the holidays remind them of being alone or what could have been (with the loved one still being around). The sad reality is grief is a part of life. The factors that affect one's grief, making it more intense or severe, can include, but are not limited to, (a) the type of loss (e.g., health or divorce), (b) the type of emotional attachment (e.g., a widow who was married for 50 years), (c) the type of death (e.g., Suicide), and (d) possible compounded loss (e.g., multiple losses near the same time). The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.
Sometimes culture can play a part in how a person mourns, perhaps suppressing the grief, or cultural practices can be part of the reason people mask their grief from others. For example, in American culture, many men do not visibly express their grief. In Mexican culture, they remember and commemorate loved ones who have passed on November 1st. Mental health professionals are in agreement that processing the loss is healthy and needed.
Loss doesn't have to necessarily be that of a loved one. As loss can represent many things, such as a job, a home, financial stability, or the loss of a cherished dream, among other significant realities. It shouldn't be surprising that many people walk around with many losses, yet without acknowledging them. This happens, in part, because we have internalized social beliefs of "just shrug it off" and "pull up your boot straps and move on." This isn't a healthy attitude because we may not be grieving the loss. Suppressing loss or avoiding the grief can lead to physical ailments (e.g., hypertension), a decline in mental health (e.g., depression), and possible substance abuse.
Most churches celebrate the holidays, with good reason, as we recognize and welcome Christ into the world; moreover, Advent can put hope back into people's lives. At the same time, we need to be sensitive of those who have difficulties with the holidays, whatever their personal reasons are. There are some tangible activities churches can consider doing during the holiday season that can support those grieving. Suggestions are:
1. Include those grieving in your weekly prayers from the pulpit and/or prayer groups.
2. Hold a Blue Christmas service (a special service for those who have difficulties with the holidays), either at your church or by having a district wide service. Cokesbury has materials for this type of service.
3. Have a daily or weekly Advent devotional that includes the remembrance of people with loss.
4. Host a seasonal volunteer type program that helps to alleviate some of the grief (e.g., having a church group partner with other organizations or churches for either holiday or non-holiday events). In AA and NA, they promote service work as it is a great way to "get out of your head."
5. Insert in the bulletin, newsletter, or e-news the importance of keeping people and neighbors in mind or in prayer who are experiencing loss during this time of year (it’s best NOT to specify names).
6. Host a special or holiday grief support group during the holiday season.
7. Invite those experiencing loss over for a meal or on the holiday itself. Even if they say no, it shows they are cared for. Even weekly get togethers over a cup of coffee or a cup of hot chocolate can be a sign of support.
8. Host a church potluck that invites those grieving to bring memorabilia to share. This helps to acknowledge their loss and shows the church can be a part of their support system.
9. Host a holiday book club that might include readings from Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul or other meaningful books.
10. Reach out to them by phone or email on the holiday, just to say you are thinking of them and are glad for their friendship. Sending a “Thinking of You” card can be helpful too.
It's important to respect their wishes if they do not wish to engage in holiday-related activities. Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience.
The church can be and should be a source of strength and hope that shares love, mercy, and grace to its parishioners and surrounding community. After all, the church is an extension of Christ in the world and we can help shine the light of Christ during times of darkness.
*-Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a Deacon serving in the Baltimore Washington Conference, a licensed clinical professional counselor, specializes in Deaf ministry, and is the chairperson of the Commission on Disability Concerns in the Baltimore Washington Conference.
Smith, M. and Segal, J. (2016). “Coping with Grief and Loss.” Help Guide.org. Retrieved from