Christmas is not something that Rebecca and Ken Zacherl were ready to think about in the weeks leading up to Advent this year.
The couple, who attend St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit, have recently suffered the loss of loved ones. Rebecca’s 59-year-old mother died suddenly in September, while Ken’s father passed away in May after a long battle with cancer.
“Christmas is hard to think about,” Rebecca told the Catholic Courier on Nov. 10. “It still seems so surreal. I take it one day at a time.”
Along with the support of their faith, family and friends, the young couple said making the holidays happy for their 2-year-old daughter, Mary, will help them deal with their grief.
“There have definitely been times I’ve been angry,” Ken said about losing his father. “The important thing is to trust in God and to just keep doing what you’re doing.”
With its focus on reflection and preparation, the season of Advent may provide some solace as well, noted Rebecca, who has found comfort by reading Scripture.
With her mother’s death being so fresh, Rebecca noted that the idea of having Christmas without her is difficult to even talk about.
To help families like the Zacherls to work through their grief as the holidays approach, parishes and other organizations offer additional bereavement support opportunities during Advent.
Such support can be especially significant for families who will be experiencing the holidays for the first time without their loved one, as is the case for Joan Roby-Davison.
The Rochester resident attended a Nov. 9 workshop at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester that focused on “Coping with the Holidays” as part of a weeklong, “Honoring Grief” series. To arrive at the workshop’s location, Roby-Davison had to drive by the Leo Center building on St. Ann’s campus where her husband of 17 years died Jan. 12.
“I’m dreading Christmas,” she said during the workshop.
Even so, she said she liked the suggestion offered by the workshop’s presenter to light an Advent wreath, which represents warmth and hope.
“It might be helpful,” Roby-Davison said.
In addition to lighting an Advent wreath, presenter Michele Allman also suggested keeping a journal, making a photo collage and volunteering. Allman, a bereavement coordinator with Visiting Nurse Hospice, also guided St. Ann’s residents and their families in discussing their grieving processes.
“Everyone will cope differently in your family,” she told the workshop attendees. “Some may need to be with a lot of people, and some may need to be alone.”
Margaret Seward said keeping busy was the best medicine for her after losing her husband several years ago.
“Time is a great healer,” added Seward, who has lived at St. Ann’s for 12 years. “You have to walk through the grief, not drown in it.”
Advent can serve as a healer as well, since the season symbolizes light in a time of darkness, explained Margie Benza, a pastoral associate at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford.
“It offers us a sense of peace in the ‘waiting,’” she said in an e-mail to the Catholic Courier . “The Advent wreath itself symbolizes the light of God and the hope of eternal life, which promises us that we indeed will see our loved ones again together in the presence of God. By our faith, we are called to trust, be still in the waiting and believe in this hope given by the grace of God to each one us in the midst of our challenges, despair and broken hearts.”
Last month, the parish offered a new program called “Surviving the Holidays,” which included a DVD, group discussion and a workbook to take home, she said. The parish also offers a 13-week Grief Share program, now in its sixth year, that follows a similar format to the holiday session, Benza said.
“In the past, we have offered some style of holiday survival (for) … the many who have crossed our paths in grieving their loved ones during this most challenging time of year,” Benza said. “I am hopeful this (new) program will offer that same caring and understanding atmosphere in helping others navigate through the holidays.”
Other parishes offer similar programs, including St. Mary Our Mother Parish in Horseheads. The parish hosts a monthly meeting for its “Wounded Healers” bereavement support group and focused on “Holiday Hope” during its November session, according to information in the parish bulletin.
At Sacred Heart and St. Ann churches in Auburn and Owasco, sessions focused on getting through the holidays were planned for both of its bereavement groups, said Bernie Tomasso, pastoral associate. One group comprises parents who have lost children. Before Advent began, the groups had touched on their feelings as the holidays approached and how individual choices and circumstances sometimes play into coping with those feelings. For example, one family sets a place at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table for the deceased family member, he said.
“It is most important that the person do what he or she is comfortable doing,” Tomasso added. “If you want to be alone, do so. You can visit a friend who is homebound or in a nursing home or stay home. … Visit the cemetery if you want. If you are going to be with people, be with people who make you feel positive and share stories about your loved one.”