Christmas is a time of joy, but for many it’s also A time of grief

Christmas is a time of joy, but for many it's also A time of grief The Rev. Ann Bolson holds a woven paper heart basket and a photograph of her mother, Blanche Elizabeth Hamm Wulfsberg, who died in 1998. A service at the UCC-C Church Dec. 2, and sessions hosted by the Vermillion Ministerial Association are designed to help people deal with grief during the holiday season. by David Lias "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die ? A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance …"

From Ecclesiastes 3

Having trouble getting caught up in the holiday spirit?

Do thoughts of the upcoming Christmas celebration kindle memories of friends or loved ones lost through death, divorce or distance, which result in bouts of grief?

People who are experiencing grief as the holidays grow closer shouldn't feel alone, said the Rev. Ann Bolson, associate pastor at the United Church of Christ � Congregational in Vermillion.

"I think a lot of us have memories of holidays that are very deeply entwined with our family of origin," she said. "So, remembering the cookies that a mother used to make, or the whittling that a father used to do, or what the family did together � it can seem real sad and broken when you realize that some of those people aren't here any more."

The UCC Church and the Vermillion Ministerial Association are offering community members several opportunities to address their grief.

There will be special service titled "Advent Prayers for Those Who Weep" at the UCC Church on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 3 p.m.

"What we'll be doing is a short service with a little music, prayer, presence and meditations," Bolson said.

Members of the UCC congregation will sit together and weave small paper hearts for the service. This is a Norwegian custom, creating hjertekurver or heart baskets.

A six-week grief group hosted by the ministerial association also began meeting this week at Trinity Lutheran Church in Vermillion. It held its first meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29. The Rev. Judy Johnson said people aren't required to attend all of the meetings to participate. They are welcome to visit the Thursday night meetings any time in the next six weeks.

There is a direct relationship between holidays and grieving, Bolson said. "With most people, holiday memories, at least from childhood, are very interwoven with the notion of family closeness."

"This is a time of celebration," Johnson said, "and celebrations in any culture, typically, are things we do together with other people. Typically it is our families that we share our celebrations with."

When death or some other circumstance separates people from loved ones, she said, there is a natural feeling of loss.

"At a time when everybody else is getting together with family, and the celebration is going on without us, it's a time we feel most keenly, most sharply the pain of that loss," she said.

Gifts, traditions, foods, songs and smells experienced during the Christmas season symbolize a feeling of safety and belonging, Bolson said, adding that modern American society doesn't always do a good job of dealing with grief.

In fact, many Americans, at times like special holidays, find themselves running away from the grieving process.

"We seem to be compulsively happy people," she said. "And around the holidays, we seem to be compulsively busy."

"There is a sense of everybody being happy, of it being a cheerful season," Johnson said. "So people who are not feeling cheerful are feeling very much alone. To be grieving is to be very much out of step of what's happening in our culture."

One of the goals of the group meeting at Trinity Lutheran is to help people realize that people who grieve during the holiday season are not alone.

"We also want them to have a process to actually deal with grief," Johnson said. "Sometimes in our culture we just figure that time will take care of it. But sometimes people have not worked through it, so a goal of this group is to help people move forward in the grieving process."

"I think people need to acknowledge it (their grief) and be very kind and gentle and patient with themselves," Bolson said.

She also suggests that people set aside time to write and think about the people they are missing, "and hopefully find a friend or two to express their pain to. One of the things I'm going to focus on Sunday is that out of the journaling and memories will arise a symbol that has something to do with the very special spirit of the person who is now gone."

Bolson encourages people to buy a piece of jewelry or some other special object that commemorates that spirit and what that person meant to them.

"When they're wearing that, or thinking about it, they can remember the love that person had for them," she said.

Bolson speaks from experience. She, herself, began a special journey, based on a Buddhist practice of phowa, to deal with the grief she felt after the death of her mother in January 1998.

Her guide in this process was the book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by Sogyal Rinpoche.

In abstract terms, phowa involves merging one's mind "with the wisdom mind of the pure presence. For a Buddhist, this would be the mind of Buddha. For a Christian, it is the mind of Christ," Bolson said.

In his book Rinpoche states that the most essential thing in life is to establish an unafraid, heartfelt communication with others, and it is never more important than with a dying person.

That message and the encouragement of a friend gave Bolson the courage to be with her mother during the last two days of her life.

"I had two precious days to bless her life, thank her for being my mother, encourage her to be with Jesus and sing to her," she said.

Bolsom also participated in another practice inspired by Buddhism called bardo. Bardo, which is practiced for 49 days after a person dies, is done not only for the bereaved, but especially during the first 21 days, it is believed to help the one who had died.

"It gave me something to do with my grief," she said. "I wasn't just awash with it."

Bolsom's mother died on a Friday. For every Friday after her death during a seven week period, she reflected on her mother's life and made journal entries which she shared with her family.

"I knew that every Friday, I would be thinking about my mother and that the (Holy) Spirit would lead me to some aspect of remembering her," she said. "They weren't all positive, because she was human being, and we all have negative and positive attributes, but it was a way to help me engage the grief rather than either wallow in it or run from it."

"I think we're also ashamed of grief," Johnson said. "So people tend to put on a happy face, because they feel shame when they express grief. People tend to try to stay private, to try to tough it out, when they are grieving."

Bolson, who began her duties as associate pastor at the UCC Church two months ago, is a former psychotherapist.

"I think that, now going into the ministry, my background gives me a much broader palette of paint, so to speak, to address grief, because there is something very spiritual about grief, and how it affects our own spirit," she said. "Modern psychotherapy doesn't give us much in that regard."

"As Americans, I think we're expected to happy and striving and confident all the time, so when you're not feeling that way, you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb and you aren't living up to other people's expectations," Bolson said. "We don't honor grief and sadness and recollection."

Johnson said scripture will be one of the resources used by those in the ministerial association's grief group.

"But we also want to make this broadly based, so that people who are not from a strongly religious background will hopefully find a sense of welcome," she said. "We're not going to be emphasizing scripture as a prerequisite or requirement for involvement on the part of people."

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