houses of worship
Mental & Emotional Health

Holiday Bereavement Services: Comfort for Tough Times

A growing number of houses of worship, as well as counseling programs with religious affiliations, are offering special services, rituals, therapeutic groups, and other programming for those in mourning.Holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah are generally considered joyful times infused with love for family and friends as we embrace traditions both societal and particular to our families. Yet for those who have recently lost a family member or friend, the holidays can feel sad and lonely,

Many of those who are grieving, young and old, feel pressured at holiday times. They see everyone else having lots of fun and wish to measure up. People typically want to appear as jolly as possible during these holidays, and this can be taxing under regular circumstances. It becomes ever more difficult when a loved one has recently died. Not only that, but the years following the death of a loved one can continue to be bittersweet during the holiday period. That is the problem the special bereavement services address.

I became interested in this topic for a few reasons: one, my husband’s father died shortly after Thanksgiving a few years ago, and his mother had turned to a support group linked to a religious community center. Two, my own synagogue has created programs for the past few years that are geared toward a few holidays and tailored for members who felt a great sense of loss because of them. Investigating further, I found out that many American congregations, reflecting various denominations, are creating programs, religious services, and other support for people at these times of year.

The Jewish faith deals with death and remembrance with organized rituals such as reciting a prayer known as the Kaddish (recited throughout the 11 or 12 months following a close relative’s passing, and on the yearly death anniversary known as the “yahrzeit”) and also as part of certain holiday liturgies (Yom Kippur, Passover, and a few other holidays) as the Yizkor or Remembrance prayer. However, there are a number of people who feel the need for additional comfort, especially during other religious holidays such as Hanukkah that place much emphasis on family gatherings, and national celebrations such as Thanksgiving.

In parts of New York City, Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services sponsors programs that are both regional and geared toward specific congregations. Jonathan Katz, Director of Community Services along with staff member Alix Friedman, explained that at certain Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx synagogues the Board helped to create holiday bereavement programs for Hanukkah and Passover, and work with rabbis, social workers and other clergy and teachers to achieve this.

These programs are intended to bring together lonely and saddened congregants, to talk and share feelings, and not just for one-shot events but for more continued programming. They create structure settings for grief expression so people don’t just sit at home and feel miserable or even ashamed of their intense sadness. Katz says that “we deal with a lot of the stigma people feel” when others say to them ‘You should be over” mourning. “Sometimes it can take years to regain equilibrium.” The holiday services also teach coping skills through the recitation of prayers, text readings and singing songs.

Katz has noticed that over the years men have reacted less stereotypically stoic during these types of bereavement programs, and more are giving vent to their feelings.

Christian groups and various churches are also creating and adapting forms of bereavement holiday services for their congregants and members. GriefShare.org is a church bereavement service that has distilled the thoughts and directives of religious programming aimed at helping parishioners. They offer “a special seminar to help (mourners) cope with the holiday season.” For people wondering how they will deal well with the weeks leading up to holidays, even dreading them and the potent, happy memories of years past, this kind of programming can be quite helpful. The website “Reformed Worship” offers a structured “Christmas Mourning: A service for those who experience loss,” which includes hymns, scriptural readings, candle lighting, and discussion for a service to be held on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Kirkwood Baptist Church of Kirkwood, Missouri has offered a bereavement service for mourners the Sunday afternoon prior to Christmas, meant to “extend comfort and hope to those whose grief makes Christmas a painful time.” A quote from Matthew 5:4 is included in the program description, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

A USA Today news story from December 2012 described a Longest Night Service at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky, meant to “reach those who feel little comfort and joy amid the celebratory season.” Some churches refer to this service as a “Blue Christmas” service or mass, for Roman Catholic congregations. A Chicago church performed its Blue Christmas service to include candles with the names of the recently deceased. An Arlington Heights church includes a ritual of grieving parishioners placing small stones at the foot of a cross. These show the importance not only of reading and speaking aloud, but also physical activities that are involved in the healing process.

Houses of worship can use pre-made bereavement programming that they find or are given by social service organizations; create their very own; or modify existing programs. In general, these programs are meant to be therapeutic and meaningful, offering solace and coping skills for the holidays and beyond.

Ellen Levitt is a veteran New York City public school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. Among her books is Walking Manhattan from www.wildernesspress.com . She holds a first-degree black belt in the Tora Dojo Association style of karate, and has taught children’s and women’s classes. She is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn.