There may be no greater challenge for those who have lost a loved one, than getting through the month of December. Rife with celebrations both cultural and religious, it can be a time when some people withdraw, while others steeped in faith, call upon their traditions to lift them up and remind them that light can pervade that December darkness.
“For anyone who has suffered loss in the near or recent past, holidays are always a challenge,” said rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Niantic, Connecticut, Fr. Anthony Dinoto. “Lots of people have a difficult time during the holidays even if they lost a love one 10 or 15 years ago. A void is created that is never completely filled. Being part of a faith community, someone might be worshipping regularly and involved in fellowship activities, and this provides connections for people. Those connections are what being part of a faith community is all about.”
He suggests that programs to remember loved ones can be very helpful and gives people an opportunity to understand that there are others in their same situation. “When people are aware that there are others grieving also, there is a certain solidarity in that. They know they are not alone in their suffering. Isolation is always a difficult way to live because people can get overcome by their loss. They don’t want to be out socializing, but that just exacerbates their pain.”
Beyond fellowship, another way people find faith communities as an opportunity to deal with loss, is in helping other people. Volunteering at a food pantry, cooking a shelter meal or reaching out to the homeless are just a few of the ways to tap into that rich and rewarding opportunity to serve. Reaching out to others and moving beyond our own grief is where healing sometimes takes place. Healing comes from the communities, when someone who has already suffered a loss is able to reach out to others and be a source of inspiration and hope to others, that light will fill those lives again.
“The season of Advent which has sort of been obliterated by the commercialism that leads up to Christmas, is a season of hope, expectation and preparation for the birth of Christ. One of the symbols used is an Advent wreath. Each week as we get closer to the feast of nativity, a candle is lit as a symbol of the light that comes. The symbolism of liturgical churches allows people the vision to see outside themselves a little bit,” said Fr. Tony.
“Another way to deal with the holiday season as an Episcopal or Anglican Christian, is morning prayer and a weekly Eucharistic Healing service. Special prayers are said for healing, as well as the sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands. We are taking part in a prayer life and each time we gather, we celebrate the Eucharist which literally means Thanksgiving. People who are grieving may wonder what they have to be thankful for. Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer is a classic collection of stories about how this kind of healing occurs.”
Fr. Tony advises folks to get outside of themselves and reach out to other people. Even a small gesture like visiting someone or volunteering, breaks the cycle of grief that seems almost suffocating for people. Our life is a sacrament he reminds us and every moment is a gift.
“It’s really important to be willing to be responsible for other people and not focus on one’s own grief to the point of being paralyzed. We live such isolated lives now. Neighbors don’t even know who lives next door. The church has never had a greater responsibility to be that hub where people can feel safe and accepted for who they are. People can feel welcome. The church continues to be a place for people to find relationships with each other and with Christ.”
In western Christian traditions, many churches celebrate the shortest day of the year during Advent with a Blue Christmas service also called the Service of Light or Service of Remembering. This is a worship service for those who have lost someone dear to them and are challenged by the holidays.
Debbie Pausig is a psychotherapist, certified Thanatologist (counselor on death, dying and bereavement), author, and Minister of Consolation, for the Family Life Office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford. She is also a widow.
“My faith gives me hope and strength to get through the holidays and year round,” says Debbie. “I think God and I will have a lifelong dance. This ‘dance’ occurs when my strong will chooses to take the lead at times forgetting that God is my ‘partner,’ dancing beside me. When I take the lead in this ‘dance,’ those are the times I struggle most. Life’s stresses and anxieties get the best of me. It is only when I ‘let go and let God’ back in, that I am able to focus, calm down, accept what I cannot change and move forward. It is then, I realize I am not alone. It is through prayers, reflection and giving thanks for what I have that makes me stronger from the inside out. God, grant me the serenity…No truer words help ground me through the holidays.”
In the Buddhist tradition, there is celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment on Bodhi Day which this year is celebrated December 8th although that can change from year to year. It is a Sanskrit word for awakening or enlightenment and is observed by a time of deep meditation rather than festival and frivolity. Many of the Buddhist holidays have variations in when they are celebrated but Bodhi day is one of the most significant in the Buddhist tradition. Deep reflection or meditation can be a powerful tool for Buddhists who may be grieving.
Kwanzaa is another celebration that is recognized during the last month of the year. It is a weeklong celebration beginning December 26. Kwanzaa is an African American celebration of culture rather than one with religious roots. Families celebrate in their own individual ways but often those celebrations include storytelling, drumming, poetry, song and dance. There is a candle lighting each of the seven nights which is symbolic of Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Swahili as well as the seven symbols reflecting values of African culture, ending with a feast on December 31.
The light in the darkness theme is a constant one regardless of the celebration. This is true in Judaism as well when Chanukah or Festival of Lights is celebrated during the eight day festival where eight candled menorahs are sure to be lit.
“Holidays are hard because people feel loss most powerfully,” said Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. “People remember that person being there. But there is comfort through being with others.”
Although people may be familiar with Chanukah because it is near Christmas it is not really much of a religious holiday and is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture. It is a festival of rededication of the temple to God. “It is a joyful time at the Synagogue when candles are lit together. In general we acknowledge loss and make space for memories pretty regularly. In all prayer services we offer prayers in memory of those who have died.” She points out that Chanukah is more of a home celebration. When there is significant loss within a home, the ritual of candle lighting and strong faith can help get people through.
Regardless of what holidays, religious or otherwise, you celebrate during December, there are some commonalities among them that may be helpful to anyone experiencing loss. Whether the loss is recent or decades old, there is something about these holiday traditions that bring people close and when someone is gone, like Fr. Tony said, there is a void that is never really filled. Within these faithful traditions, is opportunity to be in community with others, to worship in ways that remind us we don’t walk the journey alone, and to reach out to serve others in some way that reminds us of our strength during the most difficult of times.