Tidings of comfort

`Blue Christmas' church services offer a color of hope for those struggling with grief during the holidays


The flames of three dozen candles pierced the dark sanctuary like flickering stars.

Almost everyone in the basement of Peace Lutheran Church in Glen Burnie had lost a loved one this year. They were gathering days before Christmas to honor the dead and muster strength to face the holiday.

"St. John of the Cross calls these times `the dark night of the soul,'" Peggy Jaegly, a harpist, told the worshipers Wednesday evening. "But by dark, he doesn't mean sinister, but hidden. These times of darkness are hidden transformations to freedom and joy."

Similar sentiments are being shared in churches across the nation this week as congregations hold Blue Christmas services to help grieving members prepare for the holiday without a loved one.

The growing trend reflects increasing understanding of the stresses of the season on those who are already mourning losses.

"The reality is that all the sights, the sounds, the smells, everything that surrounds you triggers the memory of the person who's died," said grief therapist Alan Wolfelt, author of Healing Holiday Grief. "This is the time when you're supposed to be joy-filled, and yet you're quite naturally feeling a more heightened sense of loss, loneliness, emptiness, sadness."

Wolfelt and others say religious services that bring together worshipers to acknowledge their grief and share support can help to bring healing.

"The official church time [for honoring the dead] would be around All Saints' Day, which is November 1st, and All Saints' Sunday," said the Rev. Kenneth Haugk, a Lutheran pastor and clinical psychologist based in St. Louis. "But really the best time is early December, because of all the holidays."

At Peace Lutheran Church, in the Ferndale section of Glen Burnie, the Rev. William Gohl sent invitations for the second annual service to families for whom the staff had performed memorial services in 2005.

"It acknowledges that for some people, Christmas is not a joyous time - it's a difficult time," he said. "This is a place where people can get some grieving out, and maybe participate more fully in the day."

Gohl said "Blue Christmas" referred not to the song popularized by Elvis Presley, but to the liturgical color of the Advent season - the color of hope.

He called the service the first of Christmas; it followed the liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity, opening with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and including Christmas readings from the Gospel of Matthew.

Worshipers sat on folding chairs in the carpeted basement of the church, a more intimate space than the larger sanctuary upstairs. Jaegly, a certified healing musician who takes her harp on hospital visits, delivered a meditation.

"God doesn't intend for us to suffer," she said. "And suffering isn't a prerequisite for being close to God. Rather, suffering is part of life and our human existence."

On entering, the worshipers had taken candles. During the service, Gohl lit his, and then passed the flame on through the congregation.

"Tonight these lights are to remember," he said. "We remember the light of those who have gone on to Heaven before us. We remember the gift of God's love which is visited on us in so many ways."

Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., said the proliferation of communal services for the bereaved was a positive development.

"We live in one of the most mourning-avoidant cultures in the world," he said. "Most other cultures have days of the dead. They know you need a series of ceremonies. ... We give people three days off work, and it better be a biological, nuclear-family relative, and we use inappropriate words like, `Are you over it?' `Have you reached closure?' `Have you let go?'

"Those are ways people end up internalizing shame around any kind of open mourning."

At Peace Lutheran on Wednesday, Dolores Schmeisser stretched an arm around Helen Smith's shoulders. Smith, a charter member of the congregation, lost Paul, her husband of 53 years, in April.

"This is just a hard Christmas," Smith said after the service, smiling as a tear glistened down her cheek. "We went every place together, did everything together. All of a sudden, it's `I,' not `we.' "

Her Ferndale neighbor Betty Dorr lost her mother last year and her father this year.

"This gives me more strength to be able to deal with the holidays," she said. "To know that all these people are going through the same thing."

Smith said she was trying to focus on the meaning of the season. "It's Jesus' birth, that's what I should be thinking," she said. "Without that, my husband wouldn't have eternal life. I try to look at it that way. It still hurts."


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