My personal experience of Christmas Mourning began very early in my life when my older brother, Billy, died on Oct. 4, 1943, three months before his 8th birthday. His birthday was Christmas Eve, which made his loss even more poignant at Christmas time.
After Billy’s death, my mother decided to remember him in two special ways. Before Christmas Eve, with the help of my mother and siblings, we would make a spray of greenery with pinecones, a red bow, and some small child’s Christmas ornament on it. Then on Christmas Eve, in the afternoon we would take this spray of greenery to the cemetery, place it on Billy’s grave, say a prayer for him and tell him we loved him and would miss him when we went home to share Christmas presents together. Also, because Billy loved birthday cakes, my mother would make Billy’s favorite birthday cake on his Christmas Eve birthday, which we would enjoy as part of our family dinner that evening.
Some 76 years later, I carefully cut and collected greenery from the pine trees in my sister-in-law’s backyard in Valparaiso, Ind., a few weeks ago, to which I will again add pinecones collected from trees at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a handmade red bow, and a small child’s ornament. In mid-December, I will travel to the cemetery in Dayton, Ohio, where Billy and four other family members have now been buried. This time, I will place the spray of greenery I have made in front of the monument that bears the Kramer family name. I will also take the time to silently pray for my brother Billy, but also my father, mother, brother George and his daughter Susan, who are all buried in this family plot. I will also quietly stand at their graves and remember something special about each of these deceased loved ones and assure them that they are still remembered and loved.
This year, I will have been an active participant in the creation and placement of this decorated Christmas spray of greenery at the cemetery in Dayton for 70 of the 76 years since my brother Billy died in 1943. This mindful practice of Christmas Mourning has always been a source of healing for me over the years. And it has not only been a very comforting way to express my belief that “in death, life is changed, not ended,” (Corinthians 15:51), but also continues to deepen my enduring bond with those I love who are now with God.
I believe that the holidays can be a difficult time for anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one because holidays are traditionally times when families get together and celebrate their own traditions which can intensify the sense of loss of family members who are no longer alive and able to be part of the family holiday traditions. Often, holiday memories associated with deceased loved ones, who either died recently or a long time ago, will trigger a person’s grief or sense of loss. So for me, the challenge for myself or any grieving person at holiday time is not to deny the loss of a loved one, but rather to acknowledge the loss and make good choices to not only honor the deceased person’s memory but also to determine which holiday traditions we wish to continue and which holiday traditions we wish to change or let go of in some way.
It is when I have done this kind of reflection and made life-giving decisions that I have allowed grief to be my teacher. Because my sister Anne died last summer and I had joined her family for Christmas for the past 17 years, I have again begun to let grief be my teacher at this holiday time. So now in prayer, I have been asking God to help me discern not only how best to honor my deceased sister Anne’s memory, but also to decide what changes I will make in my holiday plans, including which family holiday traditions I will continue to participate in this Christmas.
And whenever I think about “Christmas Mourning,” I will always be grateful to my mother who chose two special ways to remember my brother Billy at Christmas time after his death. She taught me not to deny the death of family members at holiday time, but also to figure out meaningful ways to honor their memory and develop the enduring bond that we can have with our loved ones who have died and are now with God. As a Christmas card published by One Caring Place at Abbey Press Publications says so well: “To remember a departed loved one at Christmas … is to remember love and to know that love never ends.”
Note: If you would like to read or print out a copy of “Prayer for the Faces of our Grief” click here or read an article about Grieving Gracefully, click here. Both were written by Sister Connie Kramer.