Healing for the holidays

Faith comforts family through grief


by Jessica Langdon

It’s as sweet as a scene out of any love story.

But it was real life for Jacob and Terry Mauer.

“We wrote love letters to each other,” said Terry. “I’d slip one by his coffeepot, and he’d slip one by my teapot.”

The tradition wrote itself into the last six years of their marriage, a union that lasted a total of 45-and-a-half years — until Jacob died in March 2010.

Terry grew up in Wyandotte County; Rothering was her maiden name. Jacob, one of 14 children, was raised in Topeka.

The two met, fell in love and got married, settling after about a year in Liberty, Mo.

Jacob was a teacher. He taught at Bishop Miege in Roeland Park, Bishop Ward in Kansas City, Kan., and in Liberty. Terry also taught in Liberty. She is now a formation director for a lay Carmelite group based at Church of the Nativity Parish in Leawood.

The couple raised two children — son Michael Jacob Mauer, who eventually moved to Indiana, and daughter Anne-Marie Luna, whose family belongs to St. Agnes Church in Roeland Park.

When Jacob began his battle with cancer, the family had a few months to prepare and say their goodbyes.

That wasn’t the case when Michael died unexpectedly a few months later in November 2010 at age 44.

“I had his funeral three days after Thanksgiving last year,” said Terry.

A ‘new normal’

Grief has touched the members of this family in these and other ways in the last few years. And like many families that have experienced losses, they feel the absence of their loved ones particularly acutely during the holidays.

“People will say, ‘I’d like to tear the calendar pages out on Nov. 20 and not step back in until Jan. 5,’” said Mary Vorsten, a licensed clinical professional counselor. Vorsten, now in private practice, served for years as director of counseling with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

Since that isn’t possible, the question becomes: How do I cope with life during those six weeks?

First, say experts, families experiencing a loss might want to take a moment to examine their holiday traditions and give themselves permission to refrain from those that might be particularly painful.

Families experiencing grief should take a look at “what makes Christmas Christmas, and how it’s going be different this year,” suggested Mary Kay Whitacre.

Whitacre, a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, has more than three decades of experience in pastoral care and facilitates workshops on how to handle the holidays with grief.

If Christmas dinner is a necessity, maybe it can come from a store this time, she said. That way, no one has to cook.

The Mauer family has started eating dinner out on Thanksgiving. Some different traditions are replacing those from the past.

They, like many, are tasked at this time of year — and year-round — with finding what some grief experts call a “new normal.”


Jacob and Terry were “extremely close,” and that seems to ease some of the pain, said Terry.

She turns to her faith in her grief and finds herself focusing on the word “trust.” She underlines it in everything she reads. She knows God has a reason for everything, even if it’s not clear to her.

She feels blessed to have been able to care for her husband during his illness.

To her, this isn’t a time to be bitter or angry with God.

“God writes straight on a crooked line,” said Terry. “He will get us through the hard times.”

The six years of letters she and Jacob exchanged help a lot, although reading them is sometimes bittersweet. It is much easier now than when he first died, however, when she had a hard time even looking at her favorite picture of the two of them together.

Fortunately, Catholic Community Hospice, the program of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas that provided services for the family before and after Jacob’s death, was there to help.

Brent Doster, bereavement coordinator of Catholic Community Hospice, suggested she turn the picture around to face the crucifix.

It worked. Terry could have her husband by her side as she prayed.

“We can still offer our prayers together,” she said.

She has also been keeping a journal, and it gives her a glimpse of her journey.

“I can see where I’ve made some growth in adjusting,” she said.

“Adjustment” is a good word for this, she has learned.

About three weeks after Jacob died, Terry turned to a friend and said, “Tell me it gets better.”

“No,” her friend told her, “but you adjust.”

“I’m finding that to be true,” said Terry.

Holiday changes

Michael had a heart condition and had been ill, but his death was unexpected.

Living several states apart, he and his mother had an understanding: If neither had heard from the other in three days, it was time to check on the other. When Terry got no answer on the third day, she knew someone needed to check on her son. He had passed away at home; his dog was by his side.

Knowing he had been happy the last time they talked comforts Terry.

She keeps his memorial holy card close.

With Michael’s death so close to the holiday season and Jacob’s death still heavy on their hearts, family members changed the way they did the holidays in 2010.

“We went out to a restaurant, which was a wise thing to do,” said Terry, recalling Thanksgiving.

Making it a new tradition, the family went out again this Thanksgiving.

While it wasn’t the same as the holidays they’re used to, it was a nice day.

Terry attends Mass seven days a week, so naturally it will be a part of Christmas.

In 2010, the Luna family went over to her house for the holiday.

“We fixed a small, nice dinner, and then we went to a movie — a happy, nice movie,” she said, adding that it was the “best thing” they could have done. She thought that might be a good thing to do again this year.

Terry also decided on a shorter-than-usual message in the few Christmas cards she sent in 2010.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she wrote. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

She cries every day, she said, but she knows that’s part of this process.

“I think it’s a release,” she said. “I think God expects us to cry.”

She doesn’t know how someone can get through a loss like this without faith.

“We have to know they’re in good hands,” she said.

Expert advice
10 ideas for those grieving during the holidays


  Plan for times you know will be hard

The holidays are full of memories, and sometimes sadness can ambush you. But planning for what you can is a way to help you guide your grief.

When Mary Kay Whitacre’s father died, her family paid a lot of attention to the major holidays, knowing Thanksgiving and Christmas in particular would be different.

The one that wasn’t as obvious at the time was New Year’s, traditionally a couple’s holiday, which also carried many memories.

Another time that tends to hit people hard is tax time, said Whitacre. The change in marital status at tax time can be heart-wrenching for a widow or widower filing for the first time after their spouse’s death.

Planning can give you control over these times, instead of letting the holidays control you, said Whitacre.


      Take care of yourself

Karen Schemmel, who helps run the bereavement support group at Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, often draws inspiration from the monthly H.O.P.E. newsletter from the Amos Family Funeral Home. The November issue, which appears online at: www.amosfamily.com, includes a list of ways to get through a “Blue Christmas” from the Rev. Victor M. Parachin.

One suggestion is simple: Take care of yourself physically. Eat well. Exercise. Get enough rest.

One thing Schemmel always recommends is to drink enough water.

“When you’re crying, you get so dehydrated,” she said.

“Take it one day at a time,” added licensed clinical professional counselor Mary Vorsten. “Take care of yourself today.”

Doing so now can make you more ready to take care of yourself when Dec. 25 arrives.


   Nurture your spiritual health

Some people who have experienced the loss of someone close “might feel a little disenchanted by God,” said Schemmel.

“Just tell [God] your grief,” she said. “Just pour your heart out. He’s big enough to take that.”

Vorsten echoed that idea.

“They need to be able to do what they are comfortable doing spiritually,” she added.

Some people might not be able to consider going to Christmas Eve Mass without the person they have lost, she said. In that case, she suggests going on Christmas Day, instead.

“Stand in the back,” she suggests. You probably won’t be alone there on a holiday.



   Keep expectations realistic

Glittering lights. A perfectly decorated tree. A sprinkling of snow.

The holidays don’t always turn out so picture perfect, even under the best circumstances.

Families argue. Kids cry. Problems pop up.

“Holidays, I think, are hard because of expectations,” said Donna Kaberlein of the bereavement support group at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe. “Holidays are so blown out of proportion because of what we expect.”

“Be gentle with yourself,” said Vorsten, “and set those expectations aside. Ask others to set those expectations of you aside, also.”

Grief doesn’t end after the funeral.

“We’re in a society that forgets that the grieving goes on,” said Vorsten. “The first holidays are extremely difficult.”

And when someone is grieving the death of someone close to them — a parent, child, sibling, best friend — the holiday season can carry a new set of expectations, mainly that this time will carry extra weight or sadness.

“The expectations, or the worry about the holidays and what it’s going to be like, are often harder than when the day actually comes,” said Kaberlein.

This can be a time to remember and create new memories.

“They have to establish new traditions,” said Kaberlein. “A lot of people will set a candle at the table where the person used to be. Don’t forget about them, but include them in your new way of celebrating the holidays.”


 Mention the loved one

There is a sort of hesitation to bring up the name of someone who has died, said Whitacre.

“They don’t want to make you sad,” she said. While people mean well, what they don’t always realize is that you’re already thinking about them.

“The reality is that loss is an ongoing presence,” she said.

Whitacre remembers the first holiday season that followed her sister’s death. Francie Huggins was 21 when she died in a car crash. There was some healing in the mere conversation about how to handle a family tradition — specifically, what they would do with Francie’s stocking.

“In the end, we turned it into a stocking for my newborn niece,” said Whitacre.


    Seek outside support

Not everyone grieves in the same way.

Some might want to talk, while others simply can’t. Whitacre encouraged people to have patience and to seek support outside the family system.

And you can always — even for just the few weeks surrounding the holidays — talk with a professional, said Vorsten. She also encourages participation in support groups, such as those offered at several parishes.


   Find opportunities for healing

Maybe not the first year, but in years that follow, friends and family might organize walks or races to raise money for a cure.

Or they might put a present under the tree to give to someone in need in honor of the person they’re remembering.

A family grieving the loss of a child might find comfort in donating a special toy to a child who needs a gift to open this Christmas, said Whitacre.

And rituals, which can range from elaborate remembrance ceremonies to simple gestures, are key. They connect people to memories of the ones they have lost.



   It’s OK to laugh

“You always feel guilty laughing,” said Whitacre, “and yet laughter is so healing — and who doesn’t want to be remembered for laughter?”

When her great-aunt died, Whitacre’s mother and sister cleaned out her house, and there they found some old polyester jumpsuits. They wrapped the jumpsuits and put them under the Christmas tree, to the delight of the entire family.

“Aunt Grace was right there in the middle of that,” said Whitacre, adding that she would have loved it.

Looking for opportunities for laughter is important, although it can be hard to do right after you’ve lost someone, she acknowledged.
Storytelling is also one of the most healing things, she said.


   Find resources that work for you

“Many are unable to furrow through a book on grief,” said Schemmel. In those instances, she recommends something simple, such as a prayer card.

For those who want to read more, Vorsten suggests going to the library, pulling four or five books on grief from the shelf, and sitting down to look through them. Then, she suggests, check out maybe two that most match your needs.



   Find your ‘new normal’

The bright lights and smiling faces during the holidays can make someone who is grieving feel different from the rest of the world.

“We always compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides,” said Vorsten. It can feel as if life is going on as normal for everyone else except for them, but that’s not necessarily true.

Going to support groups can show people they are not alone, she said.

Support groups are open to anyone interested. They aren’t always for everyone, but many people find comfort there.

Schemmel has seen bonds of friendship formed among people who have attended the bereavement support sessions at Church of the Ascension Parish.

People come to find they don’t return to life as it was before, but instead reach “a new normal.”

The Prince of Peace group meets the third Thursday of every month at 7 p.m.  Ascension’s sessions take place on the second Saturday of each month, following an 8:30 a.m. Mass. St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., offers a weekday group that meets each month on the third Wednesday at noon. And Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood has a support group that meets on the third Saturday of each month, following an 8 a.m. Mass.

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