Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Holiday Sorrow – Catholic in Arkansas

Make a plan, but don’t feel pressured to take a holiday, grief counselors say

Published: November 24, 2022

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Linda Howard, a member of St. Joseph Church in Conway, shows fellow parishioner Linda Strack, a volunteer at Beacon of Hope Ministry, how to make a memorial ornament on November 9.

When it seems like the rest of the world is preparing Thanksgiving dinners or humming along to merry Christmas tunes blasting from speakers in local stores, grief can be jarring.

Celeste Bailey, a bookkeeper at St. Joseph Church in Conway, vividly recalls her pain and anger during the 2014 holiday season. Her son, Joe Batchelor, 19, died on October 18, 2014, in a car accident.

“I can remember walking into a grocery store and seeing people so happy and thinking, ‘You have no idea what’s going on in my life.’ I wasn’t mad at people, I just didn’t want to see people I knew at the grocery store. I didn’t want to have to talk and pretend everything was fine,” Bailey said. “I remember when I couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ because there was nothing merry about Christmas. To this day I still say ‘I hope you have a Merry Christmas’ because there is a part of me that thinks Christmas will never come.” be merry again. My family is not intact because Joe is not with us. But I can have a happy Christmas, a blessed Christmas.”

Grief during the holidays is especially challenging, but there are many ways the faithful can prepare.

Waves of sadness

Laura Humphries, leader of the funeral service at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, said a recent loss over the holidays creates immediate challenges

“All your traditions have been blown out of the water. … What if it was dad who cut the turkey, who played Santa Claus? You have to change those things, because that spot at the table is empty,” she said. “All the Christmas music is playing, and it’s a time when everyone is happy and you’d rather just climb into your bed and pull the covers off your head. It’s not going to be an exciting time for you; it’s going to be a very painful time.”

Grieving people may also struggle with family members or friends who may be grieving the same loss in a different way.

Bailey said she pushed herself to visit extended family on Thanksgiving, a month after Joe died, and “I remember it was awful. I didn’t want to go, but I forced myself to go.”

“During Christmas time that year, I didn’t want to put up decorations or anything, but my husband (Ray, Joe’s stepfather) did because we had three other kids and felt we had to,” Bailey said.

Her first husband and Joe’s father, Lynn, died in 2002. Both her parents were in the hospital for Christmas, and while it was hard, it was a good excuse not to celebrate.

“It was a relief to not have to have a big party with the whole family that Christmas,” said Bailey.

When it’s been years since a loved one passed away, the holidays can bring back emotional memories and take people back to a place of intense grief. And sadly, Humphries said, some people try to rush others into their grief by saying things like “Aren’t you over it yet?”

“Can you imagine someone saying that to you? ‘Get over it.’…People need to realize, and most people don’t until it happens to them, we need to be open to other people’s pain and make people mourn,” she said.

Make a plan

There is no requirement that holidays be merry or celebrated. But the reality of other people celebrating cannot be avoided.

Kathy Kordsmeier, director of Beacon of Hope Ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway, said it’s important to respect a grieving person who may not want to participate in celebrations or holiday traditions.

“Compare it to someone who is sick and not in the best of health. They may not be able to do the things they normally would around the holidays,” Kordsmeier said.

Bailey agreed, saying that some days they could “barely get out of bed” after Joe died.

“Do your best, especially the first six months or so, because you’re in a total, absolute fog. You just survive as best you can and do what feels right for you,” Bailey said.

It’s important to avoid unhealthy coping habits, such as drinking too much or using drugs, to numb the pain, Humphries said. A person need not be bound by holiday traditions.

“You can completely change – wrap up and go somewhere else. So you don’t have to sit at the table and look at that empty chair. Or sit in front of the Christmas tree and remember that you unwrapped the presents,” she said. “You have to have a plan for the entire vacation.”

For example, call the host for a holiday party and explain that it might be too overwhelming to stay, and you might quietly leave early. It also means setting boundaries with family members, especially those who are experiencing the same loss in a different way. It may be helpful to set a time limit or avoid certain family members.

Too often people assume that bringing up the name of a deceased loved one can send a grieving person into a spiral. Kordsmeier said giving people the space to share their loved one’s story helps keep their memory alive.

“Tell the host, ‘I’d like the chance to talk about my husband.’ Say his name,” she said. “Just let people know what you need. First of all, think about what you have to do during the holidays and communicate this to others.”

Before her brother Kenny passed away from cancer on March 8, 2021, the family shared stories of their life together and carried on after he passed away.

“That’s also a very healthy thing to do, whether that’s just talking or writing something down,” Kordsmeier said.

Just over a year ago, Bailey said her daughter-in-law lost her brother in a car accident. On that first Christmas without her son, his mother prepared his favorite breakfast and took it to his grave to eat.

Other ideas for remembering or honoring a loved one include:

  • Make or buy a memorial ornament
  • Create a photo album to share with family and friends
  • Placing a loved one’s photo or favorite item in their chair at the family table.
  • Praying at their graves as a family. Leaving a gift such as flowers for decoration.
  • Write a letter to them
  • Buy them a gift and donate it to charity or share it with family.

Bailey said her family had many traditions around the holidays, but food was always a favorite for Joe.

“He was a joy to feed because he loved everything,” Bailey said. “He loved steak, so our new tradition after he passed is that we have a big steak dinner at Christmas in Joe’s honor.”

Turn to God

Especially during Advent and Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, anger over a loss can disrupt one’s spirituality. Although God does not cause bad things to happen, there is suffering in the world and it can feel like God is to blame. If someone has to yell and scream, “he can handle it,” Humphries said, but reaching a place of trust and peace with God is important to moving forward.

For Bailey, her Catholic faith brought healing into her life. But it’s been a long journey.

“Because I worked in the church and had a lot of access to the priests. I know, I wore them down by asking them, ‘Why did this happen’ and ‘I think God hates me.’ Honestly, I hated God for a while,” Bailey said. “…I was very angry with God, but I never stopped going to mass. I forced myself to do it because I knew I wouldn’t get mad at God in the end.”

The turning point occurred about three years ago when she participated in the women’s Bible study “Walking With Purpose.”

“I realized that God loved me, and I still loved him. My Catholic faith played a big part in bringing my life back,” she said. “…Ray and I talked a lot about this after Joe died, that our life on this earth is just a blimp into eternity.”

Some parishes organize events to help grieving people.

Beacon of Hope Ministry at St. Joseph Church hosted an afternoon “Mourning During the Holidays” workshop on November 6 with a guest speaker, a small group that participated, and made a memorial ornament. They will also hold a children’s memorial service from 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm on December 4 at St. Joseph Chapel for those who have lost a child.

This year’s annual Blue Christmas Ceremony, open to all faiths, is at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock on Dec. 21 at 6:30 p.m. 5:30 p.m. in the Parish Hall.

“Prayer is a good thing to turn to anytime, especially during those times when we don’t feel connected as we normally would with family during the holidays, even more than just a sense of loss,” Kordsmeier said. “Talk to God about that. Let Him know how you feel, ‘Yeah, this is hard. I don’t think I can do this.’ And just let him be your comforter, your comforter, your friend, the one who is always there for you, who knows you best and knows what you need, rest in that and don’t worry about what other people might think. your best. And to just keep saying that in prayer.”

Those interested in mourning events in St. Joseph in Conway and Holy Souls in Little Rock can contact Kordsmeier at or Humphries at .


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