By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
The first Christmas after the death of her mother Pansy, in 2020, Deb Morse wanted to share the fond memories she held close to her heart. “I wanted to talk about my mom and how fussy she was about her cooking.” That included a memory of her mom preparing scalloped corn for the holidays, which “had to be just right. She thought no one could do it better.” Today, one of Morse’s daughters makes the prized scalloped corn dish and Morse smiles, imagining her mother supervising the cooking very closely.
As a co-facilitator of a GriefShare group at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf with Chris Pries, Morse listens to group members express regret that nobody wants to talk about the person who is missing from the holiday celebration for fear of causing more pain. “We want to talk about the good memories we have of our loved ones,” she says, offering that advice to other families whose loved ones are missing from Christmas gatherings this year.
“Taking intentional steps to remembering our loved ones is essential to healing,” says Morse, who, along with Pries, is a retired nurse and member of her parish’s Health Ministry team. “In our losses and grief we are often drawn to look at our faith. Oftentimes, it makes us look at our faith in a deeper way, drawing us closer to God.”
Morse also facilitates the parish’s Nourish for Caregivers support group. Both programs reinforce the faith community’s commitment to walk with all who are striving to cope throughout the year. The holidays add an extra layer of pain for people dealing with loss, she says.
St. John Vianney and other parishes in the diocese strive to be sensitive to the varying needs of the faithful during the holidays and to offer the support of the faith community. Like St. John Vianney, Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport recently offered a “Surviving the Holidays” program. Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton held its annual Blue Christmas service Dec. 12, which encouraged people dealing with loss to rediscover the hope born of faith and to see the light of Christ in the darkness.
People may be coping with the death of a loved one, the impairment of a spouse or child or other relative, a job layoff or dismissal, a divorce, homelessness or any other life challenges. Mary and Joseph also endured great difficulties on their faith journey leading up to the birth of Jesus, said Deacon Jeff Schuetzle, one of four Blue Christmas leaders. Despite the challenges they faced, Mary and Joseph trusted God and followed God’s plan for their life, the deacon shares with Blue Christmas participants.
Blue Christmas is rich with symbolism. Participants share their reason for attending on white stars that they hang on three small Christmas trees decorated with blue lights. They light white
candles in the dimly lit church to signify the light of Christ. The service is a beginning, not an ending. “We want them to know that we are here to hold them up during this difficult time of year.” The parish places the three small Christmas trees in the manger scene where they remain during the Christmas season so the participants know they are not forgotten. The parish’s Befriender Group is available year-round to respond to people’s needs. “It’s a listening ministry,” Deacon Schuetzle said.
Char McGovern, the health advocate on Our Lady of Victory Parish’s Health Ministry team, said her parish’s “Surviving the Holidays” program offered earlier this month drew 21 people, some of whom were not parishioners. She knows that more than 21 people are struggling with any number of losses this Advent season. Recently, she brought Communion to a widower who told her he could handle being alone but struggled with loneliness.
The next GriefShare session at Our Lady of Victory begins at the end of January. Details will be available on the parish website (olvjfk.com/olv/). St. John Vianney Parish’s next GriefShare session begins Jan. 29. Call Morse at (563) 332-7910, ext.122.
Meanwhile, McGovern’s parish offers the Nourish for Caregivers program year-round for persons who are in a caregiving role. The group meets at the parish on the third Thursday of the month. The next session is Jan. 19 at 1 p.m. in the church’s gathering space meeting room.
Caregivers, McGovern observes, also are dealing with a sense of loss and benefit from the support of Nourish for Caregivers, a faith-based program that addresses the practical, emotional and spiritual needs of families caring for a loved one. Deb Kelsey-Davis and Kelly Johnson founded Nourish for Caregivers knowing that caregiving requires the support of family, friends and the faith community for the well-being of the caregiver and the recipient of that care. “Our mission is to support and empower caregivers through the gift of faith,” the founders say on their website (nourishforcaregivers.com).
Their “Coping with the Holidays” leaders’ guide includes insights the founders agreed to share with Catholic Messenger readers:
“There is hope. Caregivers can learn to cope with the holidays and experience the true meaning of the season with those whom they cherish most. By simplifying, planning and staying centered on Christ, this is possible.” The founders cite a passage from John’s Gospel (13:34) in which Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
This commandment provides a framework for caregivers to re-evaluate all of the things they think they should be doing and the things that cause them stress. This re-evaluation allows caregivers to find “balance between caring for our loved ones, caring for ourselves and being with the people who matter most in our lives.”
The founders advise, “…think about coping as having focus on what matters most and letting everything else go, including the baggage of our guilty emotions. To cope brings hope.”
Tips for coping
The following is a sampling of tips for coping with the holidays, from Nourish for Caregivers:
• Less decorating. You don’t have to do it all or as much. Enlist the help of kids/grandkids and let them have all the fun. Remind them that clean-up after the holidays is part of the “fun” too!
• Less shopping. Cut back with ideas like budgets, gift exchanges or coming up with a family “give back” activity instead of giving gifts. Remember that time together is the priceless gift we all yearn for.
• Focus on a single tradition. Don’t try to do them all. Pick the one with greatest importance.
• Keep faith at the center. Music and readings are wonderful tools, as are keeping time for prayer and church. Recalling the story of Christ’s birth and life weave the real meaning of Christmas into time together.
• More blessings. Make it a game with family or count your own blessings, by collecting them and saying thank you more during the holidays.
• More exercise. Even if it means staying at the grocery store longer or taking a stroll that stretches out, walk and move about to get your endorphins pumped up.
• Make an escape plan for yourself. Always know where you can steal away for a bit, if it all becomes too overwhelming.
• Book doctor appointments for after the holidays, if possible.
• Have a back-up plan for most everything.
• Teamwork. Have a few people help you with the big stuff.
Stephanie Burrough, customer service coordinator and community relations specialist with Precedence Inc. – EAP, which provides the Employment Assistance Program for the Diocese of Davenport, offers additional tips.
“One of the best ways to practice self-care for yourself and others is to ‘hold space.’ This simply means that whenever you experience stress, grief or any other difficult emotion arise, you create a space of non-judgment, love and compassion for yourself in that moment,” Burrough said. “A space where it is safe to be just as you are. Similarly, when someone in our life shares with us that they are experiencing difficulty, the act of holding space for them can be equally healing. Creating a space where there is nothing to do or fix, but just be, with love and support.”
• Plan ahead — Make a list of gift ideas to buy or make, create a holiday budget to prevent overspending, plan ahead for gatherings and any COVID-19 restrictions you’d like to observe, and come up with responses to help avoid disagreements and create healthy boundaries.
• Manage expectations — Putting too much pressure on ourselves creates unneeded stress and can leave us feeling exhausted. Create a holiday schedule that works best for you and your family.
• Find the joy — Focus on what makes you happy in the days ahead. In moments of stress, try practicing mindful self-compassion or radical acceptance to put things in a healthier perspective.
• Consume mindfully — This will lessen the taxed feeling that your body and mind experience.
• Maintain healthy habits — Sleep, exercise, meditation and other daily health habits are even more important to uphold during times of high stress. Keep up with your healthy habits as much as possible during your holiday down time.