‘Lean Very Heavily on the Lord’: Loss of Loved Ones Particularly Felt as Christmas Approaches
Catholics grieving at this time of year find support from faith and family as they mourn‘at the foot of the manger.’
After Ginny Webb’s husband, Vincent, set up the Christmas tree, he would periodically check on how she and their granddaughter Harper were decorating it and offer encouragement.
Ginny, 66, of Frisco, Texas, wasn’t eager to decorate the tree this year without her husband of 33 years, who died unexpectedly in August from a cerebral hemorrhage, but Harper convinced her that they should carry on the tradition.
“It was just different this year,” she said. “We did it, but our hearts weren’t 100%. [Harper] made as much of an effort as I did. I could tell she was trying to — but it was different.”
Webb is among many Catholics who have recently lost a loved one and are working through grief when family gatherings, memories and other aspects of the Advent and upcoming Christmas season can unexpectedly trigger painful emotions.
While Vincent Webb’s death wasn’t related to the novel coronavirus, Catholic therapists say many of their clients have lost loved ones to COVID-19. They talk about spiritual and practical ideas for coping with grief during the holidays and beyond. And while COVID deaths are felt, families whose loved ones died from violence face additional trauma.
The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for nearly 800,000 U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For each death of a close relative, approximately nine people are bereaved, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
And in light of the fatal tornadoes that hit the American heartland in recent days, more people are grieving as Christmas approaches.
A survey released last month revealed that 36% of Americans weren’t looking forward to the holidays this year because of feelings of grief or loss.
Dealing With Loss
“It seems like so many people have been touched by so many deaths, so it’s that compounding of it, where I can’t even grieve for my mother because then three months later my brother passed away,” said Dana Nygaard, a therapist at Christian Comfort Counseling in Plano, Texas, whose clients range from age 18 to 70.
Hospital-visiting restrictions have eased since last year, but some feel guilty about not being able to be with their loved ones at death, she said, adding that postponing funerals because of lockdowns also complicated grieving.
Whether a person is grieving one or more losses of loved ones or another devastating loss, compounded grief is real and harder at this time of year, said Jeannie Ewing, a Catholic writer from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who writes on grief, redemptive suffering and waiting.
When memories are triggered, they can be an invitation for the Lord to enter into our grief, if we allow ourselves to cry and remember, said Ewing.
“Part of grief is moving through,” she said. “It’s not about bypassing something; it’s not ignoring something. When it comes to you, it’s an invitation. It’s an aspect of your healing.”
Grieving has been a day-by-day process for Webb, who sometimes struggles with loneliness.
“You just feel like you’re underwater a lot or like you have a cloud over your head,” she said. “You have to rise above that every day. I can’t let myself be too clouded or underwater because then sadness envelops. … I lean very heavily on the Lord.”
Just as healing is unique to each person, it doesn’t happen on an exact timeline, Nygaard said. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but there is no set schedule for healing.
Because grieving consumes a lot of energy at a time when even the non-grieving get tired, Nygaard suggested lowering seasonal expectations and asking for, and accepting, help.
Starting a new activity might bring life, but Nygaard noted that continuing traditions often brings much solace.
Memorializing a loved one can offer comfort, said Janet Sturtz, a social worker at Rejoice Counseling Apostolate in Houston.
Sturtz suggested lighting a candle at church, accompanied by prayer, or writing a note to a loved one and placing it by their Christmas stocking.
Tears of grief have healing properties and communicate to others that we’re suffering, Nygaard said. “When someone is crying tears of grief, those tears have a different chemical composition than when chopping onions.”
Grieving can bring up many different emotions, and it teaches us to be merciful to ourselves and others, Ewing said.
Support Through Suffering
Grieving families whose loved ones died in violence need mercy at this time of year, which is supposed to be joyful, said Mary Ellen Russell, community affairs director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, whose Grief Ministry reaches out to those families in Baltimore City.
“I know the personal stories of families who suffer especially during the holidays, knowing that there’s an empty plate at the table at a time when everyone cherishes being together, and they keenly miss the person that they lost.”
Started two and a half years ago, the grief ministry provides prayer and other support to families who lose loved ones to homicide each week in the city, Russell said.
So far, in 2021, the city has seen 319 reported homicides. According to 2019 FBI data, Baltimore has the second-highest murder rate in the country, after St. Louis, though violent deaths are surging in other cities such as Chicago, too. Many victims are young Black men, Russell said.
Each week the ministry sends the victims’ names to archdiocesan parishes, and many read them during the Sunday Prayers of the Faithful, she said. Working with the Baltimore City Police Dept., volunteers write sympathy notes to the families, both after the death and on the one-year anniversary. Partnering with the police and a local nonprofit family grief support center, ministry volunteers prepare food packages for the families.
“One of the things we hear over and over again is there’s no way to compare this kind of loss to other kinds of loss — it’s such a complicated level of trauma to be dealing with,” Russell said. “And to be such a daily part of life for so many communities, I think, has such an overarching traumatic effect on the communities.”
Continuing to be present to a grieving person is among the best ways to help them, article sources said.
The supporting person needs to initiate assistance rather than waiting for the one grieving to request it, Ewing said.
As Sturtz said, “The ministry of listening to their pain is so important and affirming it, normalizing it for their situation.” If the person is comfortable, it’s okay to talk about the deceased and bring up fond memories or share a poem or music, she said.
Christ’s birth can’t be separated from his death, and so the losses and rebirth we experience often coincide or overlap, Ewing said.
“I think another beautiful beacon of the Christmas story is laying our misery at the foot of the manger: That’s what he wants most from us,” she said. “If the only prayer we can give him is our spiritual poverty, then that’s a powerful gift.”