When it seems like the rest of the world is preparing Thanksgiving dinners or humming along to joyful Christmas tunes blaring from speakers at local stores, grief can be jarring.
Celeste Bailey, bookkeeper at St. Joseph Church in Conway, vividly remembers her pain and anger during the 2014 holiday season. Her son, Joe Batchelor, 19, died in a car accident Oct. 18, 2014.
"I can remember walking in a grocery store and seeing people being so happy and thinking, 'You have no idea what's going on in my life.' Not being angry at people, but I just didn't want to see people I knew in the grocery store. I didn't want to have to talk and act like things were OK," Bailey said. "I can remember not being able to say 'Merry Christmas' because there was nothing merry about Christmas. To this day I still say, 'I hope you have a happy Christmas' because there's a part of me that thinks Christmas is never going to be merry again. My family is not intact because Joe is not with us. But I can have a happy Christmas, a blessed Christmas."
Grief during the holidays is particularly challenging, but there are many ways the faithful can prepare.
Laura Humphries, grief ministry leader at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, said a recent loss presents immediate challenges during the holidays
"All of your traditions have been blown out of the water. … What if it was dad who carved the turkey, who played Santa Claus? You have to change those things because that place at the table is empty," she said. "All the Christmas music is playing, and it's a time where everyone is happy and you'd rather just climb in your bed and pull the covers of your head. It's not going to be an exciting time for you; it's going to be a very painful time."
Grieving people can also struggle with relatives or friends who might be grieving the same loss differently.
Bailey said she pushed herself to visit extended family on Thanksgiving a month after Joe died and "I remember it being horrible. I didn't want to go, but I made myself go."
"At Christmas time that year, I didn't want to put up decorations or anything, but my husband (Ray, Joe's stepfather) did because we had three other children and felt like we needed to do it," Bailey said.
Her first husband and Joe's father, Lynn, died in 2002. At Christmas, both of her parents were in the hospital, and though it was hard, it was a good excuse not to celebrate.
"It was a relief not to have to have a big celebration that Christmas with extended family," Bailey said.
If it's been years since a loved one died, the holidays can stir up emotional memories and bring people right back to a place of intense grief. And unfortunately, Humphries said some people try to rush others in their grief, saying things like "You're not over it yet?"
"Can you imagine someone saying that to you? 'Get over it.'… People need to realize, and most people don't until it happens to them, we need to be open to other people's hurts and let people grieve," she said.
There is no requirement that holidays have to be cheerful or celebrated. But the reality of other people celebrating can't be avoided.
Kathy Kordsmeier, director of Beacon of Hope Ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway, said it's important to respect a grieving person who may not want to participate in parties or holiday traditions.
"Compare it to someone who is ill and not in the best of health. They might not be able to do the things they would normally do around the holiday," Kordsmeier said.
Bailey agreed, saying some days they could "barely get out of bed" after Joe died.
"Do the best you can, especially the first six months or so, because you're in a total, absolute fog. You just survive the best you can and do what feels right for you," Bailey said.
It's important to avoid unhealthy ways of coping, like too much liquor or drug use, to numb the pain, Humphries said. A person does not have to be tied to holiday traditions.
"You can change completely — pack up and go somewhere else. So you don't have to sit at the table and look at that empty chair. Or sit in front of the Christmas tree and remember opening the presents," she said. "You need to have a plan all throughout the holidays."
For example, call the host before a holiday party and explain it may be too overwhelming to stay, and you might quietly leave early. It also means setting boundaries with relatives, especially those who might be experiencing the same loss differently. Setting a time limit or avoiding certain relatives can be helpful.
Too often, people assume bringing up a deceased loved one's name could make a grieving person spiral. Kordsmeier said giving people the space to share their loved one's story keeps their memory alive.
"Say to the host 'I would like the chance to talk about my husband.' Speak his name," she said. "Just let people know what you need. First of all, make up your own mind about what it is you need to do during the holidays and communicate that with others.”
Before her brother Kenny's death from cancer March 8, 2021, the family shared stories of their lives together and continued to after he died.
"That's very healthy to do as well, whether that's just talking or putting something in writing," Kordsmeier said.
A little over a year ago, Bailey said her daughter-in-law lost her brother in a car accident. On that first Christmas without her son, his mother fixed his favorite breakfast and took it out to his grave to eat.
Other ideas for memorializing or honoring a loved one include:
Bailey said her family had many traditions around the holidays, but eating was always a favorite for Joe.
"He was a joy to feed because he liked everything," Bailey said. "He loved steak, so our new tradition after he passed away is we have a big steak dinner on Christmas in honor of Joe."
Especially during Advent and Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, anger from a loss can disrupt a person's spirituality. Even though God doesn't cause bad things to happen, there is suffering in the world, and it may feel like God is to blame. If someone needs to scream and yell, "he can take it," Humphries said, but reaching a place of trust and peace with God is important for moving forward.
For Bailey, her Catholic faith brought healing to her life. But it's been a long journey.
"Because I worked at the church, and I had a lot of access to the priests. I wore them out, I know, asking them, 'Why this happened' and 'I think God hates me.' I hated God for a while, honestly," Bailey said. "... I was very angry at God, but I never quit going to Mass. I made myself do it because I knew eventually I wasn't going to be angry at God."
The turning point occurred about three years ago when she participated in the women's Bible study "Walking With Purpose."
"I realized God loved me, and I loved him still. My Catholic faith played a big part in bringing me back around," she said. "… Ray and I talked about this a lot after Joe died, that our life on this earth is just a blip in eternity."
Some parishes offer events to help the grieving who suffer.
Beacon of Hope Ministry at St. Joseph Church hosted a "Grieving Through the Holidays" afternoon workshop Nov. 6 with a guest speaker, small group sharing and creating a memorial ornament. They also will host a Children's Memorial Service 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 4 in the St. Joseph chapel for those who have lost a child.
This year, the annual Blue Christmas Ceremony, open to any faith, at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock is Dec. 21 at 6:30 p.m. The bereavement ministry will also offer a grief support group series starting Nov. 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the parish hall.
"Prayer is a good thing to turn to any time, especially during those times when we're not feeling connected like we normally would to family during the holidays, even more than just a sense of loss," Kordsmeier said. "Talk to God about that. Let him know how you're feeling, 'Yeah, this is hard. I don't think I can do this.' And just let him be your consoler, your comforter, your friend, the one that is always there for you, that knows you best and knows what you need. Rest in that, and do not be concerned about what other people may think. Know you're doing the best you can. And just to continue to bring that to prayer."
Those interested in bereavement events at St. Joseph in Conway and Holy Souls in Little Rock can contact Kordsmeier at or Humphries at .
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