The Family Ministry Office offers training and education programs to ensure support for grieving parishioners. Photo courtesy Diocese of Hamilton

Grief at Christmas: You are not alone

By  Diocese of Hamilton
  • December 5, 2019

Generation after generation have shared the classic Christmas poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” 

Each page brings vivid images of Christmas to the reader and a feeling of joy. One line that brings excitement and can most often be spoken by heart is “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” but when someone is missing, the story is more likely to cause despair. 

Christmas takes on a different meaning when grief is part of the story because a loved one is missing. The traditions that we have shared, sometimes over many years, have suddenly changed. Someone is absent from the table and imagining Christmas without them is seemingly impossible to do.

Christmas is different this year; it’s important to be realistic and acknowledge that fact. Honour your grief and accept that it is part of the Christmas experience, but remember it doesn’t have to be the whole experience. Give yourself permission to share joyful moments with loved ones, find times for laughter during the season and enjoy good food and company if you feel up to it. 

Allow yourself to decide what is best for you at this time: Do you want to change or keep your past traditions; how much do you feel you can and/or want to do; can someone else help with shopping and baking, or do you prefer to skip one or both of these this year; do you want to forgo all the traditional visits, or forge ahead and make them part of the season?

Above all, take the time to be honest about what you need and want, but don’t isolate yourself and do nothing, because doing something special for you is an important means by which to help yourself cope. 

Dr. Bill Webster from the Centre for the Grief Journey provides some excellent practical tips for dealing with grief at Christmas:

  • Reduce the pressure. Ask two questions: “How much can I do?” and “How much do I want to do?”
  • Re-evaluate the traditions. Family traditions such as decorating, tree-cutting, Christmas dinner, gifts, visiting friends and families and where you attend church this year will all need to be thought through. Don’t deny the experiences because they might make you sad. This is all part of the grief journey.
  • Re-define your expectations. Don’t expect everyone else to be your holiday planner; take some control of that yourself. Give yourself permission to attend social events, but to leave if they get too hard to handle. Family and friends will understand.
  • Re-live the memories. Don’t avoid the subject of the loss, but embrace memories that may bring pain, but will bring joy as well. Consider finding a way to acknowledge the person who is missing by lighting a candle, setting a spot at the table or by doing something else that makes sense to you. 
  • Remember to be thankful for yesterday, but remember that today is all you have. Celebrate what you have, while realizing what you are missing.

The loss of a loved one tugs at our hearts making special moments painful, but these same moments hold memories that can comfort us and help us journey through our grief. At Christmas, family and friends come together to celebrate in special ways, so our loss is more acute than at any other time. The wide range of emotions experienced are a normal part of life; embrace them since they will impact you less than if they are suppressed. 

Above all, remember that Christmas is a season of hope. Christ came to our world so that by His death and resurrection His beloved could be saved. “God has sent His angels to care for you, His Holy Spirit to dwell in you, His Church to encourage you and His word to guide you” (Max Lucado). 

You are not alone and you can find peace at Christmas.

Grief ministry within the Hamilton diocese seeks to ease the suffering that arises when a loss occurs in someone’s life. 

The Family Ministry Office offers training on a variety of topics related to grief in order to equip staff and lay persons to better support those who experience a loss. Grief ministry is an important parish initiative since every parish is impacted by death.

Parish staff and lay persons are trained to provide front-line service and other supports such as a grief education programs, visitation by parish ministry teams and/or sending cards of condolence from the parish community. Grieving parishioners then feel cared for at a difficult time.

The Family Ministry Office offers diocesan-based initiatives: a six-week grief education program twice per year, educating on the normal processes of grief; a special program on the first Sunday of Advent to help people deal with the Christmas season titled “Coping with the holidays;” on that same Sunday a Mass of healing is offered at the Cathedral Basilica for parents who have lost a child, before or after birth, providing support for the suffering experienced at Christmas.

At the Healing Mass a small ornament is given as a memento in memory of each child, possibly to add to their home tree. 

Do you need information or support? Contact Teresa Hartnett in the Family Ministry Office at thartnett@hamiltondiocese.com.

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