The holidays can be a daunting time for those experiencing loss, grief, or loneliness. Here are some tips on how to make it through the holidays.
The holidays are typically wonderful, vibrant times to spend together with family and friends. However, not everyone experiences the holidays the same way, and for those in grief or recovering from loss, the holidays can be a daunting time. This has only been compounded in recent years with COVID-19, as following precautions has often forced families to spend the holidays apart. It is important to honor these emotions and feelings of loss, grief, and loneliness amid the holiday celebrations. How can you help leave space for and care for those experiencing loss or grief this holiday season?
Traditions and Grief
My brother unexpectedly passed away in October 2007. My family was faced with spending the holidays without him so soon after his passing. At the time, it was important to find new traditions to survive that first holiday season, as the traditions we had formerly done as a family would have felt empty without him. In the fifteen years since, we have been able to reincorporate some of those family traditions and find ways to honor him in them.
For us, the loss was too recent and pronounced to set up a Christmas tree, decorate the house, and do Christmas as normal. So, we purchased a small, tabletop tree, didn’t wrap presents but instead just exchanged them in paper bags, ordered takeout instead of a big Christmas dinner, and spent Christmas Day together as a family exchanging stories about our loved one. In the years since, we have been able to reconnect with past traditions, but it took time. And even now, the traditions have permanently changed. Now, when setting up a tree, we always make sure to include a special ornament that my brother loved as a way of acknowledging our love for him and including him in the tradition even though he is no longer with us.
Creating Space for Grief
Note that families that are going through grief may be in similar situations, which may mean that they interact with church programming differently. I share some tips below for you to consider how to engage with families going through grief and loss, though know that there is no right or wrong way to engage with the holidays when feeling loss, grief, and loneliness. The important thing is to make sure to include space to talk openly about their (and possibly your) feelings, as opposed to trying to hide from them or push through without acknowledging them.
First, it is okay to show emotion in front of kids. There are heavy topics that may bring up your own feelings of loss. Having a pastor, educator, or parent cry may help the child learn that it is okay for them to cry and miss their loved one, too. It can help model that grief is a real part of life and there are ways we can support each other as a faith community during the hard and sad times.
Additionally, it may be helpful to suggest a change of scenery for families experiencing grief and loss. If a family typically spends the holidays with the departed in their home, the home may be a constant reminder of their loss. Families may consider going to a different family member’s home this year or, if they have the means, traveling to a different area.
Acknowledging Grief and Loss with Kids (And Adults!)
Children often experience their loss in a more pronounced way during the holidays, regardless of whether it is a recent loss or one that happened a long time ago. It is important to make sure to acknowledge the loss when interacting with kids. There are many ways to acknowledge the loss. Consider leaving intentional space within programming for kids and youth to name their loss.
This could look like trying a spiritual practice like Praying in Color, which may help participants engage with grief and other big feelings in creative ways. Perhaps reading a children’s book like Grief is Like a Snowflake by Julia Cook can be a part of a children’s sermon or Sunday school lesson. You could also create a prayer wall with mural paper and encourage families to write the names or draw pictures of departed loved ones so they can be honored and remembered. Take time to share holiday memories of the departed as a group, giving space for kids to name what they miss most or a favorite memory they have.
Consider offering a Blue Christmas service. These services have risen in popularity in recent years and many churches of various denominations have started to celebrate. Blue Christmas services are typically held on or around the Winter Solstice, which is the longest night of the year. The worship services typically include space to talk about feelings of grief, pain, and loss during the holidays and commemorations of those who have departed in the last year while remaining centered on the hope that is in the birth of Jesus Christ.
There is no right way to accompany families through the holidays while experiencing grief and loss. The important thing is to make sure to leave space to address the feelings when they come up. The season is full of hope and joy in the presence of Jesus’ incarnation, but also trust that there is room in that hope and joy for feelings of loss, loneliness, and grief, too.
Peace and all good,
Pace C. Warfield
About the Writer
Pace C. Warfield (they/them) is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA where their research interests include Reformation history and queer theological anthropology. In addition to their studies, Pace has worked in children, youth, and family ministries for over fifteen years at various congregations throughout the country. Pace has previously written blog posts for We Talk, We Listen, the diversity blog of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, on mental health and the holidays called “Waiting for Snow” and a Lutheran approach to LGBTQIA+ systematic theology called “The Queer Ground.” Additional resources they have prepared on loss and the holidays are the podcast episode of Horror Nerds at Church “The Queer Holiday Survival Guide” and their post “Queering Grief” on their personal blog. They live in Hopkins, Minnesota with their partner and two dogs.
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