The holidays are upon us and some folks don’t feel so merry. This is especially true for those who have lost a loved one recently. Grieving can make the glitter of the Christmas season grow particularly dim.
Admittedly, grief comes in stages. One milestone for me occurred late in the fall of 2011, when the remaining leaves on the trees were ablaze with breathtaking color. However, that Sunday afternoon the skies were dark and heavy with rain. The weather matched my downcast mood. When a rented moving truck pulled into my driveway, my heart sank. I inhaled deeply then waved to my stepsister, Cindy, and her husband, Mark. To me, it felt as if the Indianapolis couple were transporting the body of a loved one, instead of our parents’ old furniture.
Losing my mother, Glenna Sprang, suddenly in 2010 was devastating. There had been no warning or preparation. She was a Philadelphia organist who played two church services on the morning of October 10th. That same afternoon, pain from a kidney stone gone terribly wrong sent her to a Pennsylvania hospital where she died three days later.
Mom was 78. Even though she had been in excellent health, I should have realized she wouldn’t live forever. Five months later on March 5, 2011, Neal Sprang, my 80-year-old stepfather of 35 years died. Theirs had been an age-old love story. Two hearts so intrinsically intertwined, that one couldn’t keep beating for long without the other.
My stepsister and her husband had made the difficult trip to our parents’ home in Philadelphia to retrieve the furniture that we had inherited. For me, there was my grandfather’s writing desk, a birds-eye maple vanity, and a mahogany table with six chairs. Long ago, Mom and “Dad” had purchased the dining room set from a church rummage sale.
That old table has seen many wonderful memories of Christmases past. Every holiday, formal china and the good silverware would be set on the linen tablecloth, which would be laden with my mother’s steaming homemade dishes. The iridescent flames of the candles decorating the centerpiece would reflect in the crystal chandelier. For hours, my siblings and I would gather around the table sharing stories and laughing solicitously at my stepfather’s corny jokes.
For awhile, there was an eerie silence that greeted me each time I gazed at that Duncan Phyfe table that ended up in my dining room in central Ohio. Its presence reminded me of the permanence of my parents’ passing.
Then last December, I met Rev. Philip Chilcote who gave me some great advice on how to deal with my parents’ loss. “In a particular family, you might have five children….who lose a parent and that’s five totally different griefs,” explained Rev. Chilcote who is the chaplain at Wilson Hospice in Sidney, Ohio. He is also the bereavement coordinator for the organization who assists the families of hospice patients with their own grief issues.
In addition, sixty-year-old Chilcote is the pastor of Sidney’s First Christian Church. In his role as a minister he has walked alongside countless families devastated by the loss of a loved one. “Grief is a re-adaptation process meaning we have to learn to live our lives without somebody who has always been there,” said the hospice professional. “We have to learn to adapt to a different world. Not only is the world different, but we are different,” he said.
For grieving individuals creating new traditions and rituals is important. Some folks try to ignore the loss, but Chilcote believes that you should, “include the one who is gone in what you do.” For example, if you normally hang Christmas stockings, the expert who has led grief support groups for two decades, suggests that you should hang a stocking for the individual who died.
If the deceased family member “always had the chair at the end of the table,” Rev. Chilcote says that you could leave the chair empty, or choose someone to sit in their place. As for giving, if it was your tradition to purchase a $50.00 gift certificate for the late family member, you could make a donation to a charity or ministry in their honor, or give to a neighbor in need.
“People can buy a special candle and at the place at the table where they sat you can light the candle…and go around the table and have each person say what they meant to you,” suggests the seasoned grief counselor. “Tell funny stories about them. Most people who die, wouldn’t want you to be sad,” he added.
My parents would definitely not want the joyous season to be filled with mourning. They were both church choir directors who believed that Christmas wasn’t about presents and mistletoe, but rather about a baby born in a Bethlehem manger whose love lives forever.
That’s why I took Rev. Chilcote’s advice last Christmas and kept my stepfather’s place at the table empty. I placed a candle where my stepdad always sat, and lit it to honor him and my mother. My mother was always too busy serving to sit much, but I made sure there was an empty china coffee cup, since she always enjoyed her pie with a cup of hot coffee.
This past year, I tried to create new family memories around my parents’ beautiful dining room table, realizing that was why it had been entrusted to me. Memories that would make my mother clap her hands in delight, and my stepfather comment, “Very good,” a saying he used when something pleased him. I no longer feel sad when I look at the table, but rather grateful that I was given such a gift.
Yet if you are reading this and you are too depressed to partake in holiday festivities, know that it really will get better. You never stop missing your loved ones, but when we know Jesus, we know that there will be a great reunion someday soon. For now, in the words that my mother always signed her Christmas cards, I wish you, “Peace, Love, and Joy,” this holiday season.
Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy award winning freelance journalist and speaker who is the author of the book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors. Visit her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News.