At Family Holiday Celebrations, Some Mourn Those Absent

October 29, 2004

A Feature
By Vicki Brown

(UMCom) – Virginia Bender remembers the first family photo she took after her daughter committed suicide. It was during the winter holidays. “Someone was missing,” she says. 

Bender, 72, a member of First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., has since lost a son, and just this year, she lost her second husband. So she is preparing for another tough holiday season. She plans to attend classes at her church for those grieving a loss, and she will cook Thanksgiving dinner for her four surviving children and her second husband’s four children.

After her daughter died in 1982, Bender remembers it was her pastor’s wife who offered the most comfort simply by spending time with her.

“It’s just helpful to go to church where people know you and will give you a hug,” says Bender, whose son was killed by a drunk driver in 1984. Her husband died of natural causes. “This time, I know I’m facing a tough time, and that I need to prepare for it.”

When families gather to celebrate the holidays, some mourn those who are not present. Churches can help with the depression that overshadows the holidays for so many, especially the elderly who often can suffer a series of losses all at once, such as a spouse, their health and their home, if they move to a nursing home. 

One way to help is to offer them a chance to serve others, says Karla Woodward, program director of senior adult ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. Last year, residents of five nursing homes unwrapped boxes of ornaments for the church’s Christmas tree. Throughout the year, Woodward asks residents to help prepare material for Sunday school. The need to serve only increases with age, she says.

“It may take one woman 45 minutes to cut a donkey head out of construction paper, but it’s worth it,” she says.

Rev. Rick Gentzler Jr.,
Especially for someone who has moved to a nursing home or who is homebound, the church family needs to stay in touch, says the Rev. Rick Gentzler Jr., director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

“One of the things we did when I was a pastor was to have a banquet near Christmas for all older adults, making sure that the homebound would have transportation to get there,” he says.

Simple human contact is what isolated people need most, Woodward says.

“Our singles group wrote letters just to say, ‘I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you and praying for you,’” Woodward says. She recalls reading one of those letters to a woman in a nursing home. Turning to go, she heard the woman crying. When she turned back she realized the woman was saying, “Oh Jesus, you didn’t forget me.”

Often the elderly move far away from their church communities when they move to a nursing home. Many already live far from their families.

“The sad national statistic is that half of all nursing home residents never get a visitor,” Woodward says. “The big need is for caring companionship – someone sitting down with you, looking you in the eye and holding your hand and offering undivided attention.”

Some churches hold a Longest Night Service on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. The service is meant to offer peace to those struggling with loss, illness, broken relationships or financial problems. The service features candles lit in memory of lost loved ones and time for quiet reflection.

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston delivers poinsettias to those who can’t get to church, and it holds an afternoon service followed by a reception for those who find it hard to get to regular church services, says Laura Lee Slimp, who works in caring ministries at the church. Traffic is slower at these services, and arrangements are made to get everyone to church, including those in wheelchairs, she says.

Gentzler says churches should extend help beyond the holiday season.

“Holiday time is a good time to do things, but it would be helpful for churches to think about it other times as well,” he says. “After the holiday, people may be wondering what they have to look forward to.”

Brown is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

This feature story was developed by, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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