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AGING WELL: When it’s a blue-gray Christmas Missy Buchanan, Dec 6, 2010
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
A few years ago I stood next to a silver-haired friend whose husband had died just a few months earlier. We were singing “Joy to the World” accompanied by a full orchestra in a sanctuary decked out with festive wreaths and Christmas trees.
I couldn’t help but notice that she was struggling to make a sound. Finally, she fell silent as tears rolled down her cheeks. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just put my arm around her and kept on singing.
It was a vivid reminder that not everyone feels merry and bright during the holiday season. Many people are overwhelmed by the emotions that come with the loss of a loved one. Older adults are especially vulnerable to feeling blue at Christmas since they may be grieving other losses too.
In fact, grieving a loss of independence, mobility or a sense of purpose is much like grieving the loss of a longtime spouse. Even the long shadows and increasing darkness of winter days seem to magnify an already gloomy mood.
Helping the grieving
Recently I spoke with Julie Yarbrough, author of Inside the Broken Heart: Grief Understanding for Widows and Widowers (Tate Publishing). Julie, who is the widow of the Rev. Leighton Farrell, former senior pastor of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, writes about grief from a firsthand experience. She offers several tips for helping aging loved ones deal with grief and loss during the upcoming holiday season.
Establish reasonable expectations. Julie warns families not to set up unreasonable expectations for themselves or for their grieving loved ones during the holidays. She encourages family members to work together to put this year’s family gathering in a healthy perspective.
Instead of trying to achieve a larger-than-life experience, consider having a “good enough” holiday. Trying to recreate a Norman Rockwell illustration when family members are struggling with feelings of deep loss will only cause more stress in an already stressful situation.
Don’t act as though nothing has changed. It has. By acknowledging the loss, there is an opportunity to find comfort. This year, just take it a day at a time, remembering that there will be other holidays, other years.
Worship the Christ child, not the tradition. For most people, Christmas comes wrapped in unique family traditions. However, the death of a loved one or a change in circumstances can certainly upend those traditions.
What do you do when Grandpa is suddenly not there to read the Nativity story on Christmas Eve as he had done for decades? Or when Grandma is too frail to make everyone’s favorite candy like she’s done for so many years? As people of faith, we must try to keep our focus on the significance of Christmas while navigating our way through grief and loss.
Traditions can be altered and new ones can be begun. Perhaps it is a good time for the grandchildren to honor Grandpa’s legacy by taking turns reading the Christmas story. Maybe Grandma can help supervise a younger generation of candy-makers or give copies of her candy recipe as a treasured gift. Bottom line, keep your heart open to Christ and find creative ways to adapt traditions.
Don’t be afraid to remember and reflect. Older adults often fear that they or loved ones who have died will be forgotten. Remembering loved ones in special ways will bring much comfort to those who need it most during the holidays.
Several years ago I created a Memory Tree, a tabletop Christmas tree decorated with old photos and memorabilia from family members who have passed on to glory. My elderly aunt told me how much that tree meant to her because it was a visible reminder that we would not forget other family members who are no longer in our midst.
In an effort to help those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, many churches are now offering special “Blue Christmas” worship services. Julie suggests that churches might want to rethink the “blue” title since it suggests loneliness and sadness. Julie suggests more uplifting possibilities such as “We Remember at Christmas” or “Christmas Service of Remembrance.”
As we approach Christmas this year, let us be mindful of those who are sad or anxious in this tender season. Do not try to force your good cheer upon them.
Instead, sing the carols when they cannot sing for themselves. Allow them space and time to grieve. Walk beside them through the bleak winter landscape until at last, they find hope anew in the manger.
Ms. Buchanan, a member of FUMC Rockwall, Texas, is the author of 'Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms' (Upper Room Books). Watch her Dec. 13 on ABC’s 'Good Morning America.'