Ever since an angel announced good news to shepherds working the night shift, Christians have associated the birth of Jesus with joy.
But some people who have experienced significant loss in the recent past find a season of celebration observed against a soundtrack of “Joy to the World” a bit hard to handle.
Churches can help reduce the pain for grieving people by dialing back expectations and not heightening the pressure, Chaplain Mark Grace said.
When Grace, vice president of mission and ministry at Baylor Health Care System, speaks to churches about grief and bereavement during the Christmas season, he begins by urging congregations not to buy into the holiday hype.
“On the one hand, the majority of human beings manage to survive the holidays. It isn’t pre-ordained that the holidays are going to be terrible just because someone lost a loved one. On the other hand, the holidays are a time like no other when people’s buttons are being pushed—mashed like all get out—in the free-for-all attempt to squeeze money out of people,” Grace said.
“Emotion-laden messages fill the airwaves, print media and billboards at every turn. One of the reasons that makes it so hard to navigate the holidays as a griev-ing person is the fact that the frequency and intensity of emotionally laden symbols, images, and messages is way off the charts.
“Churches ought to be places where leadership is seriously asking the question: Do we want to join the hordes who are seeking to manipulate people, or do we want to help them find ways to cope, using their faith?”
Some churches seek to help people handle grief during the Christmas season by offering worship services marked by moments of remembrance, sponsoring support groups and providing seminars focused on grief recovery.
South Main Baptist Church in Houston has a longstanding tradition of offering a worship service of hope and remembrance during Advent, said Erin Conaway, associate pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston.
The service includes a time when each person who is grieving the death of someone can light a candle in that person’s memory, pronounce his or her name and ring a bell. Each participant is given a rose as a reminder of the precious life that has been remembered.
In addition to the worship experience, the church in recent years also has provided a time where people who have sustained a loss can share their experiences and process their grief.
“There is a bond grieving people have. It is not one of their choosing, but it can be a powerful blessing,” Conaway said.
Some years, the small-group experience has been scheduled as a series of “handling the holidays” seminars on Sunday afternoons. More recently, the church has offered “gathering stones” lunches—a series of weekly informal gatherings around a shared meal.
“People need space to own the fact that in an Advent season of hope, joy, love and peace, the words don’t jibe with what they’ve feeling in their hearts,” Conaway said.
In a season of lights, people experiencing the darkness of loss may feel out of place. Pastor Mark Bumpus began a remembrance service at First Baptist Church in San Angelo a couple of years ago with a quote by Buckner Fanning, longtime pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio: “Why do you suppose Jesus was born at night? Why was Jesus born to starlight instead of sunlight? … Because it is the darkness that frightens us … and Jesus came to dispel our darkness.”
Bumpus offered assurances to the assembled worshippers that Christian loved ones who had died live in eternal light, and God’s light abides even in life’s darkest times.
“Have you ever noticed, if there is a shadow in the valley of death, there is at least enough light in that valley to create that shadow?” he asked, quoting a retired minister who voiced the question at a graveside ser-vice in Lampasas he attended more than 30 years ago.
Near the end of the remembrance service, people who had lost a loved one to death within the last couple of years were invited to place a star on an evergreen tree in the sanctuary as a symbol of eternal life and hope.
“It was a very moving time in which a good bit of catharsis took place, especially for those who had lost a loved one since the previous Christmas, ” Bumpus recalled. “There were silent tears shed which seemed to bathe the emotions of the participants, and there was some release of deep grief.
“Rather than holding the service in our large sanctuary, we held it in the chapel which was more intimate. And people felt connected with one another, sharing the same plight of grief and were not distant due to the smaller size of the sanctuary. The setting seemed to cause each participant to lose some of their isolation, and they were among people with whom no words needed to be exchanged. There was an understanding between them because of the common experience of recent grief.”
First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., has offered a similar remembrance service for at least a dozen years, Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner said. In a church that averages close to 50 deaths a year, the service has meant a great deal to grieving family and friends, she noted.
“The most meaningful part of the service is when those who have lost someone approach a table set up with candles, light a candle in their memory and pronounce the name of their loved one,” Turner said.
“There is something special about the group gathered for that service who have something in common—the loss they have experienced—and who participate in that simple, single act. It’s a powerful thing.”
On the first Sunday evening of Advent this year, South Garland Baptist Church in suburban Dallas held a worship service focused on dealing with loss—particularly at Christmas. When people suffer any significant loss, they naturally experience grief, Pastor Larry Davis said.
“Grief is a process—a time for the body, mind and soul to catch up with one an-other and heal,” he said. “You can’t cheat the process by trying to short-cut it or go around it. You can only go through it.”
Grief becomes unhealthy when it ceases to be a process and de-velops into a lasting state of being, Davis said.
But if it is handled in healthy ways, grief can be a transformative experience of personal growth, he added.
“Grief forces us to redefine ourselves and to discover some things we can learn to do,” he said.
Loneliness can be a byproduct of grief, and that particularly may be acute at Christmas and other special occasions. But churches can walk alongside hurting people through their grieving time and quietly remind them of God’s presence “through the valley of the shadow of death,” he said.
“Christmas is God’s reminder to us we are not alone,” Davis said. “God is with us.”