Holidays not festive for everyone

KINGMAN - The Rev. Pam Wagner knows what it's like to have no desire to celebrate Christmas.

Wagner, of St. John's United Methodist Church, lost her father shortly before Christmas her first year as a pastor and took time off to deal with his death and funeral. When she came back to work, she was thrust into ministering to the congregation during the festive holiday, even though celebrating the season was the last thing on her mind that year.

With those feelings in mind, Wagner and a small group of pastors from Grace Lutheran Church and Trinity Episcopal Church created a Christmas service for those going through difficult circumstances. This is the fourth year for the event, called Blue Christmas Worship Service. It will take place at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the church, located at 1730 Kino Ave.

"The idea behind this is that Christmas is very difficult for some people, perhaps because they've lost a child or a spouse, or they've received a difficult medical diagnosis such as cancer," said Wagner. "So we've created a service that is quiet and meditative for those who just can't find it in their hearts to sing fa-la-la this year because life has been too tough."

Each service attracts about 40 people, said Wagner, and features music, selected readings and a candle-lighting event. The service is free to attend and lasts about an hour. It also includes an opportunity for participants to remember loved ones - last year, they attached blue ribbons to a Christmas tree, and before that, they wrote a remembrance on paper and placed it in a manger as a symbolic act of giving their pain to Jesus.

"I think this helps people recognize that others are going through similar problems and they are not alone," said Wagner. "They can express their losses in a safe place where they won't be judged, and they can recognize the season without having to pretend and participate in happy festivities."

Carol Baldwin, director of Arizona State University's Center for World Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said the holiday season can be a difficult time for someone who has experienced the death of a loved one. The emphasis on family togetherness and traditions can bring feelings of sadness, loss and emptiness, and the sights and sounds can trigger memories of the one who has gone on. But grief is not just limited to death.

"The impact of any type of loss can be magnified at this time of year," said Baldwin. "Losing a job can be the death of a way of life. Losing a pet can be very difficult, especially for people who live alone, but they may feel reluctant to share their feelings for fear of being told they are foolish, or to 'get over it' as it was just an animal."

Baldwin, who has many years of experience as a hospice nurse and as a death, grief and loss educator, said it's acceptable in today's culture to have a broken leg, but it's not acceptable to have a broken heart. She said people must give themselves permission to grieve. Also, she said, don't be surprised at the intensity of the grief, especially at this time of year.

Here are some tips for coping with grief and loss during the holiday season:

• Keep in mind that the anticipation of a holiday may be worse than the actual day. Make a plan for the approaching holiday and involve family or friends to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

• Continue to honor the holiday but think about making alterations. Consider lighting a candle in honor of the person's life or putting a special item belonging to the person on display.

• Talk about the grief with caring family and friends. Telling stories can help move through the process of grieving toward accepting the reality of the loss.

• Get enough rest, eat well, exercise and drink alcohol only in moderation. Avoid trying to numb difficult feelings with alcohol or food. Give permission to express feelings of grief, to cry or pound pillows if needed. Feeling mad, sad and scared are normal feelings for people who are grieving.

• At a family gathering, try not to pretend the death didn't happen. If there is a tradition or story that was particularly meaningful, talk about it. Others might feel free to tell stories and share their memories of the loved one.

• Participate in healing activities such as working in a garden, getting a massage, yoga, jogging or playing golf. If faith is important, attend a holiday service and make it a remembrance event.

• Keeping a journal or diary can also help to express personal, private feelings of grief.

• Take time to think about the meaning and purpose of life. The death of someone loved creates opportunities to take inventory and assess how to make a difference in life.

• Seek out a certified grief counselor if the feelings get overwhelming.