By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
It’s Christmastime, the season of comfort and joy, jolly greetings and peace on earth.
Unless you are a person who’s lost a loved one.
If so, this may be a treacherous time of year, fraught with sadness and unexpected anger.
No matter how people handle loss, they will have at least one opportunity this month to make room for their grief, at the Holiday Remembrance & Candlelight Ceremony offered by Brenneman Funeral Home, 1212 W. Second St.
The ceremony, at 6:30 p.m. Monday, may be “the one time that it’s safe to shed tears during the holidays,” Mellissa Brenneman said.
“The difficulty that many people face when the holidays come about, whether they have lost a spouse, a child, a mother, is a kind of a feeling of, ‘I’m present here in this world, and look at all these people doing these joyful things. Don’t they see I’m hurting?’” she said. “That’s an inward feeling, and it’s very painful when you’re surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves.”
Amid the grief, Brenneman observed, “the fact is, all the family traditions are going to be changing. In most families, people kind of have assignments. For example, Grandfather always cut the turkey. It can be very overwhelming if the stark reality hits as you prepare Christmas dinner, ‘Wait a minute, who’s going to cut the turkey now?’”
Don Friesen, whose wife, Cheryl, died March 26, knows exactly what Brenneman described.
As Christmas approached, Friesen debated how to observe the holiday season. He couldn’t decide whether or not to put up a Christmas tree in his apartment, but in the end, “I sure did,” he said. “It was very difficult. It was something we always done together, me and Cheryl.”
Married 27 years, the couple always attended the downtown merchants’ annual holiday open house. This year, alone for the first time in decades, Friesen decided to keep up the tradition.
“I decided to go by myself,” he said. “I think you still need to do the things you used to do together. It brings back memories and memories are good. You need to hold on to them.”
Even so, Friesen’s Christmas this year will be far different than any he’s experienced before. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, he learned that it’s good for him to spend special days with family.
“I went to my folks’ house in Meade, and that’s what I’ll do at Christmas,” he said. “My daughter, she’s 25 and she lives in Kansas City, Mo. She’s going to her mother’s folks’ for Christmas.”
Despite the geographic distance, Friesen and his daughter maintain frequent communication. Their relationship offers mutual support as they find their way through their first Christmas without his wife and her mother.
“We talk and cry on the phone,” he said. “Crying is good.”
Brenneman agreed, adding that each person’s journey through grief varies.
“We want to be able to acknowledge that every family, every person deals with death differently,” she said. Drawing upon research by Dr. Alan Wolfelt of The Center for Loss & Life Transition, Brenneman noted that “grief is just so individual. For innocent children, their worlds are so clear, and they know how to let themselves hurt. We, as adults, start to compartmentalize and say, ‘I can only visit that hurt for a while, and then I have to go over here.’ It’s hard for a lot of people to give themselves permission to grieve.”
At Monday’s service, permission is granted — even in details like the song selections.
“You know how hard it is to have music at a holiday remembrance service?” Brenneman asked. “When you start to listen to Christmas music, everything has joy in it.”
It’s important for those struggling with sorrow to know that “not all Christmas songs you hear are helpful to you. It may seem they just really don’t mean anything this year; maybe you’re not ready to hear them again.”
Amid such quandries, “our program is very much about building on your faith. We do this as a Christian, faith-based program,” Brenneman said.
Pastor Terry Ford from First Christian Church will share a devotional. A song, “Yet Will I Praise Him” will help participants focus on the idea that, “even when life has not been so easy, there is still hope in God,” Brenneman said, “and then we’ll do the actual remembering of our loved ones, speaking their names once we have lit the candle.” Special piano music by pastor Arlen Engle, a time of reflection, and a closing prayer will give participants a chance to have personal quiet time.
“That time of reflecting in candlelight creates a quietness and stillness, a kind of tranquility,” said Brenneman.
Brenneman Funeral Home offers to order a personalized ornament for each person, and hosts a reception after the service for those who want to mingle.
“We’ve been doing this for 14 years, and there are people who attend year after year,” said Brenneman. “There have been times, like this year when Thanksgiving and Christmas are so close together, that we wonder if we should continue. When it’s so busy, how do you make sure you’re doing the right thing? But when we talk to our staff about it, the overwhelming opinion is that it’s so worth it, even if only 10 people come.”
Friesen, who’s working to form a widow’s and widower’s support group, said events like the evening of remembrance are a great encouragement to him. People who’ve lost a loved one can feel like nobody understands their situation, he said, and to some extent, they are right.
“Besides God, nobody does,” he acknowledged. “But it’s good to talk things out. Stay busy. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself starting to be scared, lonely, and that makes things harder.”
Brenneman encouraged family members and friends to offer companionship in attending the service.
“You can’t take their pain away but you can be there for them,” she said. “There’s a lot of resources out there, but the friend next to you is the best thing.”