“Much of the season from Thanksgiving through the new year is filled with family and celebration, and it’s also filled with hurt and grief,” says the Rev. Sara Wilcox of Land of the Sky United Church of Christ.
Wilcox explains that, though the season is meant to be joyful, for some, the holidays can be the most trying and raw time of the year. “It can be the first holiday since the death of someone really important. It could be complicated family dynamics that make holiday meals painful. It could be the general challenge of it being merry and bright for someone with chronic depression, where lifting themselves from the fog of every day into the tinsel and the light seems impossible.”
In recognition of these issues, Land of the Sky UCC will hold a Blue Christmas service on Thursday, Dec. 21, for those who are grieving or depressed during the holiday season. “On the shortest day of the year, when the length of darkness is greater than the amount of light, we hold this service to honor the truth that in the next day, there is more light,” says Wilcox. The goal is to provide the community with “an opportunity to gather in a space that is less holly and jolly and more contemplative, and provides space for grief and the emotions that often are felt by various people during the holiday season.”
The Blue Christmas service lasts about an hour and involves music, a short reception and candlelighting. This year marks the eighth Blue Christmas service.
“We’re people with expectations and hopes, and in that reality comes disappointment,” says Wilcox, pointing out that it is natural to experience emotions other than joy during the holidays. “We’re people who love deeply, and that reality means people experience loss and grieve deeply, too. And we’re people who seek the promise of a new day, and we believe there is not a better place to do that than in community, where we can know each other’s stories, where we can share each other’s burdens, and we can live more lightly in the world, knowing we’re never alone.”
The concept of sharing and supporting each other through the grieving process is what inspired local grief doula Sheridan Hill to start Community Supported Grieving — a grief and loss circle that meets monthly and is open to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. Referring to grief around the holidays, Hill says, “We think we have to live up to some expectation of everything being happy. And the reason that everything gets all emotionally jumbled is because room is not made for grief to be at the table.”
Hill lost a parent to gun violence when she was a teenager, and in 2013, her youngest daughter died in a vehicle accident. Hill has experienced firsthand the role that grief can play this time of year and is committed to supporting others who are grieving.
“It’s the expectation of the Hallmark card, and the beautiful table where everyone is laughing and happy, and everyone belongs at the table, and nobody is upset,” says Hill. “Room needs to be made at the table at all of the community gatherings and family meals; room needs to be made for that person who is having a difficult feeling.”
Community Supported Grieving circles, which take place on the second Tuesday of every month, incorporate song, creative discussion and ritual. In addition to the regular monthly gatherings, Hill will facilitate a special event on Wednesday, Dec. 27, for folks to gather to share ideas and discuss the future of Community Supported Grieving.
“What we’re doing in December is we are going to have a special meeting after Christmas, and it’s just going to be a roundtable on ‘How do we create community-supported grieving?’” says Hill. “I’ve been working for several years with the question ‘How do we bring grief out of the closet, and how do we acknowledge that we live in a grief-phobic culture?’ What’s the medicine that we’ll all create together for addressing the grief-phobic culture?”
Wilcox and Hill are not the only locals creating a welcoming space for grief during the holidays. Corey Brown, licensed professional counselor at Transformational Counseling, and Cindy Shealy, licensed clinical social worker at Crossing Point Counseling, will hold a ceremonial gathering called The Art of Grief on Saturday, Dec. 16.
“The Art of Grief is focused on creating a safe, community space to welcome and share our grief. Grief can be a gateway to wholeness, joy, reverence and connection, but too often grief is not fully experienced — [it is] stuck, feared, ignored or felt in isolation,” says Shealy. “This experience is a nonreligious opportunity to come together, share our experiences, engage in creativity and witness each other’s pain and transformation. There is no specific type of loss required to participate. Grief touches all of us, whether it is in the form of losing a loved one, loss of a home, losses of the world around us — including species extinction, loss of habitat, pollution or grief connected with our ancestors.”
The Art of Grief is inspired by the works of Francis Weller, a psychotherapist and author who is known for his work on the communal nature of grief. Shealy explains that an environment of support is especially vital during the holidays. “The holidays are a painful reminder of what we have lost. There are visual, visceral reminders all around us of this loss,” says Shealy. “On top of that, there is a societal expectation that one is cheerful, joyful and happy during this time. Unfortunately, that expectation doesn’t allow for the sadness, sorrow and despair that many of us feel during this time of year.”
Sealy suggests allowing the opportunity to say no to commitments, set boundaries and create new traditions if old ones no longer feel right.
For those who would benefit from additional support and may be struggling with addiction over the holidays, Jubilee! Community Church will hold a donation-based wellness workshop, Staying Strong and Sober Over the Holidays, on Sunday, Dec. 17.
“The holidays are like a minefield of temptation and stress,” says Jane Stanchich, local nutritionist and head of the wellness program at Jubilee!. “Stress about money, stress with family and stress with old memories of holiday disasters or family conflicts. Many people feel isolated or depressed.”
Jane Stanchich will team up with her husband, Lino Stanchich, a fellow nutritionist, and Damon Dickinson, a certified addiction recovery coach, to discuss tips for staying on the right path during the holidays. “The holidays have a lot of unhealthy foods involved — a lot of sugar and a lot of alcohol. When we overdo these, we can become depressed. Both sugar and alcohol have been related to depression,” says Jane.
Jane recommends going to places that have a positive energy, staying hydrated and having an exit strategy in mind. “In our workshop, we teach how to plan ahead if you’re going to a party and how to pick healthy foods out of the buffet line so that we’re nourished. Food nourishes not only our body but our mind. Eating a lot of whole, healthy foods gives us greater stability, and we feel more confident; we feel more nourished.”
WHAT: Blue Christmas service
WHERE: Land of the Sky United Church of Christ, 15 Overbrook Place, Asheville
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 21, 6:30 p.m.
WHAT: Community Supported Grieving
WHERE: Contact Sheridan Hill for location: email@example.com
WHEN: Second Tuesday of every month, 6 p.m.; and roundtable meeting Wednesday, Dec. 27, 6 p.m.
COST: Free. Visit griefcircle.net for more information.
WHAT: The Art of Grief
WHERE: Coalesce, 223 E. Chestnut St., Suite 6, Asheville
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 16, noon-3:30 p.m.
COST: $50. RSVP at crossingpointcounseling.com
WHAT: Staying Strong and Sober Over the Holidays
WHERE: Jubilee! Community Church, in Garden Room, 46 Wall St., Asheville
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 17, 2-4 p.m.
COST: Donation. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org