Christmas is a time of joy. For many, however, the holidays are a reminder that someone you love is missing from the festivities. Whether you’ve recently lost a loved one or you’ve spent many Christmases longing for their presence, this time of year can be difficult and lonely, and stir up deep feelings of grief.
The carols you once loved to belt out at the top of your lungs now remind you of your person, and the dinner table always has a glaring hole where that someone should be sitting, regardless of how boisterous and full of laughter your dining room may be. For many, the winter season adds that much more strain on already exhausted emotions.
There are many ways to help navigate grief during Christmas. Rituals, whether faith-based or not, have proven to be comforting to people who are grieving. Mourning rituals help those experiencing loss feel a sense of control, as well as a connection with their community and support system.
Faith-based rituals can deepen this comfort by providing a connection to God and a greater meaning. One such tradition in Catholicism is Advent, or the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. This time is intended to prepare for Christ’s coming but can also give mourners a sense of active purpose.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the goal of Advent is to make present for ourselves and our families the “ancient expectancy of the Messiah...by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming.” During this time, Catholics light the four candles of the Advent wreath, one on each Sunday. These advent candles, three purple and one pink, symbolize prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Attending mass and taking communion during Advent, such as feast days, Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, can bring peace of mind and heart. Prayer and worship are comforting in themselves, but the support your priest and parishioners provide will remind you that you’re not alone, and that God does not give you any struggle you cannot handle.
“God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-14)
Lighting a candle and saying a prayer for the deceased before or after mass can be comforting as a reminder that your loved one is there in your heart and your memories. Asking your priest to include a prayer for your loved one can also bring comfort, as your Catholic community joins in to remember and pray for them with you.
Christmas won’t ever be quite the same without the person you lost. But grief is a burden made lighter by sharing, and old family traditions can still be sources of comfort and healing. Trimming the tree, going caroling door to door, or baking and decorating cookies can remind you fondly of your loved one and make them feel close to them in spirit. If you can’t bring yourself to do these things without them, however, you don’t have to if it pains you too much.
New traditions, or modifying old ones, can bring solace to an activity that once brought sadness. For example, creating a new Christmas dinner menu while incorporating your loved one’s favorite dish, setting a place for them at the dinner table, making a special tree ornament or memorial on your mantle or table, or including your loved one as you say grace, are all ways to help overcome the pangs of grief.
The true meaning of Christmas is to celebrate Christ and to serve in his image through giving. Giving can also help heal a grieving heart. Almsgiving is a crucial part of Advent, and donating to food and clothing drives, bringing cookies to a neighbor, or volunteering at a shelter can help bring joy to both you and the recipients of your generosity. Donating to a charity in your loved one’s name is a wonderful way to continue to memorialize them.
Although Christmas is about giving to others, it’s important to also give yourself patience and care during this difficult season. Get plenty of rest, do not overindulge in food or alcohol, and avoid activities or get-togethers that may feel overwhelming. Attending gatherings with a friend who understands what you’re going through and can help you leave if you suddenly need to be away from crowds of people.
Grief can feel especially profound during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. But loss affects us year-round, ebbing and flowing differently for each person.
At Horan & McConaty, we understand the need for support during grief, no matter whenever you need it. We partner with HeartLight Center (links to heartlight.org) to help families and individuals in the Denver area cope with loss. During the Christmas season, HeartLight Center offers special group support and events to help you navigate grief during the holidays.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)