How support groups help families celebrate holidays despite grief
After a loved one dies, the holidays are never the same.
They can be festive. They can be cheerful. They can even be memorable. But they'll never be the way they were before.
That's one of the many messages delivered by a national grief support program that several suburban religious communities use to help people cope with the holidays while they're in the midst of mourning.
The GriefShare program and its season-specific Surviving the Holidays events are designed to help people enduring a loss find a comforting, accepting place to learn they're not alone, said Samuel Hodges, executive producer for Church Initiative, the North Carolina-based parent organization of GriefShare.
Especially at the holidays, the hole left by the death of a spouse, a parent, a child, another close relative or a friend can seem even larger -- and lonelier.
"When everyone else is celebrating, people who have lost a loved one are often missing that person," Hodges said. "With everyone else in such a happy, festive mood, no one wants to bring that up."
GriefShare and Surviving the Holidays exist to allow people to discuss the loved ones they've lost -- to the extent they feel comfortable -- and to hear how others have found hope through the tears.
"The biggest thing about GriefShare is the sharing part," said Margie Mayfield, parish nurse at Faith Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, which sponsored a Surviving the Holidays event in November and has a GriefShare group launching Jan. 15. "As people share, a lot of times, the answers just come and present themselves."
Judy Cornett's husband, Jerry, died at age 74 in June 2016. But the loss still robbed his widow of her usual Christmas spark come December.
"I had to do Christmas so different," said Cornett, 77, of Aurora. "I didn't put up a tree. I just didn't have the energy."
With her friend Katy Klepper, whose husband also died that year, Cornett attended a Surviving the Holidays program at her church, Grace United Methodist in Naperville. She said the session helped normalize her emotions and lack of motivation.
"There were days when I didn't feel like putting on that red, sparkly sweater and acting the part," Cornett said. "And I'm an act-the-part person, so that was hard."
It's common for people experiencing grief to lose interest in or capacity to handle some time-honored traditions, Hodges said.
GriefShare facilitators, who often have endured a loss themselves, encourage attendees not to fear a shift in customs, but to "feel the freedom to change," Hodges said. Doing things differently won't dishonor a deceased relative; in fact, Mayfield said, it can commemorate the person, carry on their memory and create a "new normal."
But when things don't feel normal, Cornett advises those grieving to seek support.
"Being willing to ask for help I think is key," she said. "It's a gift that you give to other people if you allow them to help you."
Atmosphere of help
Although churches take the lead in offering holiday grief support, the meetings they host are not "churchy or theological," said the Rev. Mark Himel at Grace United Methodist. They are welcoming and honest. "It's a very purposeful atmosphere of acceptance," Himel said.
At the beginning of the Surviving the Holidays session Grace offered Nov. 29, Himel spoke of resources such as pastoral care for spiritual needs and counseling from a nonprofit organization called Samaracare. But then he faded into the background as the group watched a video and reflected on the ripples of grief throughout their lives.
No one is forced to talk during a Surviving the Holidays seminar, and no one is given a tissue -- although there are plenty on hand.
"When someone starts to cry and you hand them a tissue," Cornett said, "they think they have to stop."
They don't, Himel said. And they shouldn't.
"Each time you cry, you get a little stronger," he said. "Lots of crying means lots of healing."
Where to get holiday help for grief
Several suburban churches already have offered local seminars of a national program called GriefShare: Surviving the Holidays. Here are locations hosting sessions before the end of the year:
College Church in Wheaton
332 E. Seminary Ave., Wheaton 7 to 8:30 p.m. today (630) 668-0878
4054-A Fox Valley Center Drive, Aurora 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19 (630) 849-3938
GriefShare also offers a 13-week support program to help people process their grief, no matter the season. Here are locations launching new GriefShare series soon:
Faith Lutheran Church
431 S. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Jan. 14 to April 16 (847) 253-4839
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church
1190 N. Hicks Road, Palatine 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays, Feb. 3 to May 5 (847) 359-3451
Torch of Faith
954 W. Brae Loch Road, Gurnee 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Jan. 9 to April 3 (224) 338-6642
Village Church of Gurnee
1319 N. Hunt Club Road, Gurnee 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 21 to April 22 (847) 244-6606
Parkview Community Church
764 St. Charles Road, Glen Ellyn 6:30 to 8 p.m. Mondays, Jan. 8 to April 16 (630) 469-4306
Christ Church of Oak Brook
501 Oak Brook Road, Oak Brook 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Jan 2 to March 27, or 1 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 3 to March 28 (630) 321-3936
The Compass Church
520 E. Roosevelt Road, Wheaton 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays, Jan. 8 to April 2 (630) 753-1965
Immanuel Lutheran Church
950 Hart Road, Batavia 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Jan. 15 to April 9 (630) 937-4236
Grace United Methodist Church
300 E. Gartner Road, Naperville 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 21 to April 15 (312) 371-4421