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Photo Credit: Graphic by Abigail Witte

The gift of hope in the midst of grief during the holidays

Parishes around the archdiocese recognize grief, honor loved ones during the Advent season

For people who are grieving, the Advent and Christmas seasons might bring more pain than cheer.

Leslie Berry, a parishioner at Holy Infant in Ballwin, placed her candle with others on a table during a Blue Christmas prayer service Dec. 5 at Ascension Parish in Chesterfield. The service was billed as “a time of reflection for those who are grieving, sad, lonely, or overwhelmed this holiday season.” Cindy Huger, head of the bereavement ministry at Ascension, said the participants’ candles represented “what we were giving to Christ who came to take away our sins and our suffering and to find our joy in the Advent season and to find peace.” Participants were invited to take their candles home with them after the service.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
“The world tells you it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it sure doesn’t feel like it for many people,” said Cindy Huger, coordinator of the bereavement ministry at Ascension Parish in Chesterfield.

On Dec. 5, Ascension hosted a Blue Christmas prayer service for anyone grieving the loss of a loved one or burdened with other sorrows during Advent. Huger said this is the first time the parish has hosted the prayer service, recognizing the need to bring God’s love to those who are suffering sometimes hidden pain.

“Just look at the cross, right? (God’s love) is not just in the beautiful snow falling on Christmas Day,” she said. “It’s in when it’s rotten and horrible, and you’re angry and sad — we should let people know God’s presence in that.”

The Ascension Bereavement Community personally invited every family who had a funeral for a loved one at Ascension this year. An important part of the bereavement ministry is forming relationships with families who have lost loved ones, staying in touch with them after funerals are over to check in and continue to pray for the deceased by name, Huger said.

“They have said that makes a huge difference to them because there’s a lot of times they don’t know how to pray, or they’re mad at God, or they are just empty, and to know that they’re being lifted in prayer has made a difference,” she said.

People might not know what to do with their grief during the Advent and Christmas seasons, Huger said. “So we just bring it all to the altar.”

Letting the Lord into our grief

Faith makes a difference to people who are grieving because if offers the gift of hope, said Jane Guenther, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Renewal Center.

“It opens the door to the idea that there isn’t an end,” she said. “That’s the thread that we use for a lot of what we do when we’re working with people who have lost a loved one, because it is never that ‘you’re going to get over this.’ We’re always moving into new seasons with new hope.”

Photo Credits: Graphic by Abigail Witte
On Christmas, we celebrate Christ becoming man, entering into all of our human experiences — including grief and loss. Guenther pointed to the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” when He learned that His friend Lazarus died.

“I think so many times people think that there’s something wrong if I have tears,” she said. “But it’s totally acceptable to have tears over our grief, realizing that in Jesus’ humanity, He wept, too.”

During the Advent season of joyful anticipation, people who are grieving may feel tension between the hope of the Incarnation and their current suffering. The beautiful thing about our faith is “the pain I’m experiencing can itself be a place that bears fruit,” Guenther said. “…The Lord, in our faith, actually allows us to enter into the pain, and the Lord wants to be in the pain with us. And there are times when the Lord also wants to invite us into His very pain, and it’s in that union that the growth happens — He allows us to share in His pain, and we allow Him to share in our pain.”

Remembering loved ones

For Cindy Swain and her family, the annual Mass in Memory of Our Children has been an important Advent tradition since 2001.

Swain’s first son, Jacob, died 12 days after his birth earlier that year. She and her husband attended the annual Mass at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (Old Cathedral), which has been celebrated since the 1980s on the second Sunday of December for families who have lost a child of any age.

At the Mass, each family receives a slip of paper to write their child’s name. During the offertory, they process up to the altar and place the paper in a basket; then, during the eucharistic prayer, the priest reads the names aloud.

“So all the children, their names are spoken, and they are remembered and prayed for together,” said Swain, a parishioner at Assumption in O’Fallon. “It’s really powerful. When you lose a child, as time goes on, you hear your child’s name spoken less and less, and people are afraid to bring up your loss or to say your child’s name because they think it will cause you pain. But actually, it brings so much comfort to know that they are remembered, because our children are never far from our hearts and our minds. To know that someone remembers with us can be powerful.”

Swain’s two daughters sing in the choir and her son lectors at the Mass. It’s been helpful for them to set aside a day to remember and honor Jacob amid other holiday busyness and celebrations alongside other families who understand, Swain said. She’s also drawn close to the Blessed Mother, who experienced the loss of her own child.

“During Advent time, we’re waiting for the birth of Christ. And the Christmas season is so much about children and families,” she said. “When you’re missing your loved one during the holidays, you’re picturing how things should have been, with them here.”

Swain, who works at Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support, encourages those around grieving families to reach out and not be afraid to talk about the deceased loved one.

“I think it really honors families if you are willing to enter into their grief, if you say the name of the child they’ve lost, if you say things like, ‘I’m sure you’re really missing your child this season, or this may be really hard for you.’ Just entering in and allowing them to open up for conversation to know that you love and support them” can mean the most, she said.

Patty Kernell agrees. During the first holiday season after her husband, Tom, died, all she wanted was for people to acknowledge him by speaking his name and sharing stories.

She and her family always went to her father’s house on Christmas Day, and it meant so much that her stepmother filled Tom’s stocking with a few small items to honor him.

“He liked turtle candy, so she had that in there; he liked hummingbirds, so she had a little hummingbird I could hang,” Kernell said.

In the nine years since Tom’s death, Kernell and her children have found comfort in remembering Tom during Christmas celebrations each year, including through gifts like a memory quilt of his T-shirts and necklaces and cufflinks with his signature. Tom was a big Bruce Springsteen fan, so Kernell’s four children gifted her a framed poster from one of his concerts. Tom loved poundcake, so one year, Kernell made individual poundcakes in nice ceramic dishes and paired them with bags of his favorite coffee.

“It helps me, and I hope it helps them,” she said.

Kernell encourages others who are grieving to be gentle with themselves at the holiday season; it’s OK if you don’t feel up to attending every party and gathering, she said. “It might be good to tell your loved ones ahead of time, ‘I’m going to try to come to dinner. But if I cancel at the last minute, I’m sorry.’ It’s just because you don’t know how you’re going to feel.”

A parishioner at Mary Queen of Peace in Webster Groves, Kernell facilitates a grief support group for widows and widowers at the Catholic Renewal Center. “We call our group Compassion, and compassion means ‘to suffer with,’” Kernell said.

Being able to speak openly about the grief of losing a spouse with others who have been through the same thing has been hugely important to her, Kernell said, along with the chance to bring their grief to prayer.

“We walk along with Jesus, but that (faith) is not a magic pill that makes the pain go away,” she said. “The pain is incredible, but when you’re there on your knees, Jesus is right there weeping with you.”

Hope on the longest night

On Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice — the day of the year with the fewest hours of sunlight — Christ the King Parish in University City is reaching out to those in darkness. The Respect Life Committee will host “The Longest Night” prayer service for not just those grieving a loss but anyone who is having a tough time during the holiday season, “bringing them together to remind them that Jesus is the light,” said Jamie LaBelle.

Mental health is one of the priorities the Christ the King Respect Life Committee decided to focus on this year, said LaBelle, Respect Life Committee coordinator. The prayer service will be followed by time for fellowship, where there will also be information about mental health resources for anyone who wants to seek out further help.

“Jesus came to earth to address the needs of all the people, and in the myriad of ways that we have needs,” LaBelle said. “So I think, especially at Christmas, it’s important to remember all those different needs of people. Because that’s why Jesus came — He came to give us hope.”

>> Grief and accompaniment

Photo Credits: Graphic by Abigail Witte
Father Conor Sullivan, a licensed psychologist who works with the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Vocations Office and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, offered these tips for those who are grieving during the Advent and Christmas seasons and those who want to support others who are grieving.

For the grieving:

1. People experience grief differently. There is no one “right” way to grieve. You don’t have to check boxes or do things in the right order. Your grief is as unique as you and your relationships are.

2. Faith in the Resurrection does not mean that our tears are unholy, unnecessary or wrong. After all, Jesus wept for Lazarus just minutes before He raised him from the dead. Faith and grief are not opposed to one another.

3. Your sadness is a testament to the love you have for the one you lost. Your sadness is sacred. Don’t feel like you have to get rid of it or get over it.

Photo Credits: Graphic by Abigail Witte
4. Moving on in life does not mean that you do not love the one you lost. We can ‘remember’ and ‘embark’ at the same time.

5. Hope and gratitude are very helpful ways to maintain peace while we grieve: hope that we will be reunited someday with the ones we love, and gratitude for the gift that they were to us.

For those accompanying the grieving:

1. Your presence means more than you know. You don’t have to fix anything or know the right answer.

2. Don’t wait for a grieving person to reach out to you — make the first move.

3. Give a person the space to grieve the way he or she feels most comfortable. Just because the other grieves differently than you, doesn’t mean that they’re grieving incorrectly.

4. People often stop offering support shortly after a funeral. Giving a grieving person a call at three months, six months, and a year after the loss can be very helpful. This can be helpful to get someone through their “year of firsts.”

Photo Credits: Graphic by Abigail Witte
5. Your prayers go a long way. Don’t hesitate to reach out and pray with a person who’s lost a loved one.

Mass in Memory of Our Children

The annual Mass in Memory of Our Children will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, at the Basilica of St Louis, King of France (Old Cathedral), 209 Walnut St. in Downtown St. Louis. Father Mitch Doyen will be the celebrant. The Mass is an annual tradition that provides families who have lost a child with a way to include them in their Christmas celebrations. All are welcome. For more information, contact Cindy Swain at (314) 313-1701.

Longest Night prayer service

The Christ the King Parish Respect Life Committee will host The Longest Night prayer service at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21, at St. Rita Church, 8240 Washington St. in Vinita Park. All are welcome to join to pray for strength, courage and acceptance; a reception will follow. For more information, contact Jamie at (618) 806-2809.

Grief Support Groups

The Ascension Bereavement Community will host an eight-week grief support group for people who are grieving the death of a loved one. The group will begin meeting Jan. 16 in the Ascension parish hall, 230 Santa Maria Drive in Chesterfield. For more information or to request a ride, call Cindy Huger: (314) 369-8052.

The Compassion group for widows and widowers meets from 7-9 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the Month and/or from 9-11 a.m. on the last Saturday of the month at the Catholic Renewal Center, 1406 Sappington Road in south St. Louis County. For more information, contact Patty Kernell at [email protected].

For a list of more grief and bereavement groups around the Archdiocese of St. Louis and other resources, visit archstl.org/marriage-family-life/resources/bereavement.

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