EDMONTON, Alberta — When Gina Marini and her family gather for Christmas dinner, they will continue the tradition they started more than two decades ago: leaving an empty chair for the family patriarch, Giuseppe Arlia.
“This is a trying time for us,” said Marini, whose father died around Christmas.
“This was 20 years ago, but Christmas time is always more difficult for us. But he loved Christmas and we keep his tradition of trying to keep strong and keep going. He’s always in our hearts.”
Marini also continues another tradition: attending the annual Advent Mass at Holy Cross Mausoleum in Edmonton, where her father is interred. Mass also is celebrated at the mausoleum the third Saturday of each month.
On Dec. 16 it was standing-room only as families came together in grief and in hope, to remember loved ones who have died. Many pinned photo ornaments of their loved ones onto a Christmas tree.
“It’s a hard time,” said Rita Summers, her voice cracking as she remembered her mother, Grazia Bennardo, who just died two years ago. For Summers, the pain is still fresh.
She said attending the Advent Mass helps.
“It brings my mom closer to me. It’s Christmas. It’s that time of year where I want to be celebrating with her too. She’s always in your heart, but I feel closer to her when I’m here.”
For many, the holidays, Christmas in particular, can be a difficult time especially when grief in its many forms — including death, job loss, illness, addiction, the end of a relationship — is juxtaposed against it.
Ben Bentum sees it often in his practice as a counselor with Mercy Counselling, a ministry of Catholic Social Services in Edmonton.
“I think the holidays are particularly tricky because it’s supposed to be such a joyous time and because it’s a family time when people are together,” Bentum said.
“If you’ve lost somebody, if someone has died, then that relationship is no longer there. The holidays just highlight that relationship, the emptiness of it, the missing piece,” he explained.
It may sound counterintuitive, but Bentum advised making intentional time to face the pain and grief. He suggested that having a ritual, such as lighting candles, leaving an empty chair or even having an exit strategy if, for example, a Christmas party or family event becomes too overwhelming.
“A lot of time we’re afraid of the sadness, but we don’t know anybody that doesn’t stop crying, so eventually the tears end. It’s really the heightened emotion that make it difficult to manage. Dealing with grief such as a death or traumatic event is as unique as each family and each individual,” Bentum said.
That includes children, who also should be given the latitude to grieve as well.
“We want to protect our kids, but they are grieving too. We can invite them to grieve in child-appropriate levels,” such as leaving an empty chair for a grandparent, he said.
There are no set timelines for anyone to process their grief.
“Does it get easier? It becomes more familiar as time goes on. We relearn how to live in the world again. Allow the process to happen, as it happens,” Bentum said.
It’s finding the balance between grief and hope for the future that is essential as the family readjusts to life without that loved one, that job, or that relationship.
Bentum noted individuals may find counseling, as well as support groups in churches and online, and events such as the monthly Mass at Holy Cross Mausoleum can help.
At the Advent Mass, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith noted that the Catholic families in attendance share both loss and faith. In his homily, he drew a parallel between their grief and St. John the Baptist’s time living in the wilderness, saying that Christmas also offers hope.
“Internally, at the level of the soul, there is probably no wilderness as vast as grief,” Smith said.
“In the birth of the Savior, what is communicated to us, with great clarity, is God’s love for his people, God’s desire to draw near to his people especially when they are experiencing that moment of desert we call loss and we call grief.”
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Ehrkamp is news editor in the Archdiocese of Edmonton Communications Office.