How to Deal With Death During “the Holidays”

The Church has abundant spiritual resources to help the grieving. Let’s deploy them this “holiday season.”

In this Dec. 11 photo, a statue of a health worker stands as part of the Nativity scene at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.
In this Dec. 11 photo, a statue of a health worker stands as part of the Nativity scene at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. (photo: TIZIANA FABI / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Nora McInerny assured her readers who have lost a loved one during the pandemic of 2020 that “You Don’t Have to Fake It Through Thanksgiving.” She did it by relating her own experience of her husband’s death to cancer three days before Thanksgiving 2014. “A mental health professional might describe the period immediately after the death of my husband as shock. Anyone else would have described it as The Holidays.”

McInerny’s thoughts are relevant to a lot of pastoral care right now.

We are now in the midst of a series of holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year — that are all happy, family-centered holidays. The zeitgeist of the public and cultural calendar is going to be horribly out of sync with the psychology of a lot of people, considering COVID-19 claimed more than a quarter million American lives this year. 

I said our “public and cultural calendar.” I don’t like turning this time of year into the generic “holidays,” but for purposes of this essay, that term is actually useful. Americans (including American Catholics) pass through a constellation of about 45 days at the end of the calendar year that are happy “holidays.”

Advent itself in some sense has taken on that “happy” focus. I’ve previously blogged about how the 1969 Roman Calendar and 1983 Code of Canon Law reforms resulted in downplaying the penitential aspect of Advent, so that the seasonal accent is one of “devout and expectant delight” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, no. 39, emphasis mine) 

The general “happy” thrust of November and December is an orientation generally reinforced by the American cultural bias of optimism, captured in songs from “Smile Though Your Heart is Aching” to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” because “The Show Must Go On.”

Well, a lot of people are going to be going against that grain this year. And while every year standard journalistic fare serves up some article on “how to cope” appears during the “holiday” season for those feeling a loss, the broad scale social impact of COVID-19 mortality will most likely bring that need into sharper relief this year. 

Another factor plugging into the asynchrony between peoples’ cultural and private lives at this time of year, when it comes to death at this time of year, is our loss of a period of mourning. French philosopher Damien Le Guay criticizes contemporary trends in how society marks death. One of his critiques is the loss of a period of mourning. 

Once upon a time, mourning was a private and a public thing. It was visible in how one dressed and what did and didn’t do. Far from being mere formalism, it made others aware and thus participants in somebody’s loss. Even if something was happening that was generally happy or upbeat, the visibility of mourning helped modulate that note for the grieving and thus was an act of fraternity. 

Le Guay says we’ve lost mourning today. It’s not a “period,” certainly not in the sense of a publicly informative interval. (Consider: we proclaim “30 days of mourning” for public officials, yet what does that really mean for most people other than the school janitor remembering not to run the flag all the way up the pole?) There’s no socially-sanctioned “period” for bereavement — certainly not one commensurate with the time a heart needs to heal. 

Bereavement is mostly privatized, not just in that its external markings have disappeared but in the sense that, but for the deceased’s closest family members in the privacy of their homes, everybody else immediately reverts to “normal.” That “normalcy” involves the decedent’s erasure from public life: whereas a period of mourning once made a group broader than one’s immediate family aware of loss, even if words weren’t spoken, the absence of a period of mourning erases both the awareness and words. 

Friends and co-workers now find it “awkward” to mention “death” to the bereaved, resulting in everybody going about ignoring the 800-pound dead elephant in the room. The loss of a period of mourning, says Le Guay, sends the social message that our priority is “return to normal” as soon as possible, as if the one whose death interrupted that normal never existed.

Almost 300,000 dead fellow Americans, a winter COVID-19 resurgence, and a new uptick in mortality make it far harder to tiptoe around these issues, even amid the “upbeat” tone of the “holidays.” That’s why it’s more important than ever for parishes and priests to acknowledge death and loss at this time of year.

Parishes that have bereavement groups should focus on the particular needs of the grieving at this time of year; parishes that do not should ask themselves what they are still waiting for.

I expect that the general ethos of the “holidays 2020” will be more downbeat. Although Thanksgiving is traditionally America’s biggest travel period, this year’s numbers were down, and travel was mostly by car. Many jurisdictions imposed stricter quarantine and numbers caps just before Thanksgiving; self-enforced social distancing is adding to it. 

One suspects many people might have been willing to “sacrifice” Thanksgiving in the hope of “saving” Christmas but, again, social distancing and public closures seem to be slowing down the “holiday period.” Without empirical data to back it up, my gut says that stores and malls will end up taking a seasonal hit, while Amazon and on-line shopping will have a very Merry Christmas.

All this will likely contribute to a generally slower-paced, more downbeat, and perhaps more family-centered “holiday season.” That’s not necessarily bad, considering we’ve always urged people not to be caught up in frenetic commercialization and to “keep Christ in Christmas.” It also may make us more sensitive to those around us in need of consolation at this time of year.

McInerny offers some points that any therapist, religious or otherwise, might provide: Don’t force yourself. Don’t do what you don’t want to do. Don’t succumb to the idea that this will be just like every other Christmas, minus one guest. Say what you’re feeling instead of hiding it inside or deflecting it with meaningless banter. All that’s true, but consolation should be richer than that. 

Consolation is, above all, a spiritual activity, which is why I have been as critical as I have been of the hierarchy’s decision to strike the “field hospital’s” tent, impose moratoria on Mass, and generally cut back on pastoral care and services. While, undoubtedly, I will hear responses “that’s not true,” the fact is that many Catholics have felt abandoned and perception often shapes reality. A slower “holiday season” is an opportunity for the Church to fill in that space by “putting Christ back into Christmas,” including for the bereaved, not by forcing but by inviting and — sometimes gently — coaxing. 

That latter point is important, and I’ll close on a personal note. While I’ve talked about accommodating the “upbeat” of the “holiday season” to the “downbeat” feelings of many bereaved people, we also need to raise up those latter’s feelings, too, and not just let them remain in their grief. Mourning takes time, time we should take. But — even if Le Guay scores the rapidity with which we try to get there — we do have to accommodate the life that has now “changed, not ended.” 

My father died 50 years ago on Dec. 23. Christmas 1970 was in Muska’s Funeral Parlor. For my mother (who died 10 days before Thanksgiving 1987) Christmas was never the same, and that shadow remained on the holiday in our family for years. It wasn’t until 1995 that my then-fiancée (now wife) brought a Christmas tree back into our house, something for which I am very grateful. 

McInerny says that “we all wish we’d spent that Thanksgiving [after her husband’s death] creating a new version of the holidays that matched our emotional landscape. We could have watched the Marvel movies in chronological order or even just laid face down on the kitchen floor for a few hours.”

No, you couldn’t — at least not long-term. Maybe for that year and the next you might have done that, but at some point, your subjective experience has to reincorporate what Thanksgiving (or Christmas) is … not without ignoring the hurt, but also not letting the hurt ignore Thanksgiving (or Christmas).

While I now understand how my mother felt about Christmas time, it was not good that it took a quarter century for a Christmas tree to return home. As my own family has now collected over the years our own cache of Christmas ornaments, I do regret that the beautiful decorations we had when I was a child, ones that would now be 60+ years old and ready to pass on to my children, ended in the garbage can in 1971. 

Yes, my Thanksgiving and Christmas are also shaped by the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths. But while Christmas was never the same for mom, with due deference to the need to mourn, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), something the Christian community must also remind and accompany its hurting members with. Those outside the circle of grief have an indispensable role to play in helping the grieving over time to maintain a healthy balance. 

The Church has abundant spiritual resources. Let’s deploy them this “holiday season.”

Rohingya Muslim refugees gather during the Eid al-Fitr holiday inside their temporary settlement on May 14, 2021 in New Delhi, India. A lockdown is in effect as COVID-19 cases have surged in India, causing a shortage of oxygen supplies across the country.

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