Faith In Brooklyn for December 13: Clergy Offer Ways for coping, helping others, through grief during holidays
Christmas is not merry for everyone.
The holidays can be emotionally difficult and sorrowful for those who have lost a loved one, whether recently or in the distant past. Two local clergywomen with experience ministering to the bereaved offer insights on how to cope, and how to help others through their grief.
The Rev. Erica Cooper, assistant minister at Plymouth Church, brings her experience in hospice care to her work here. And the Rev. Erika Meyer, associate rector for pastoral care and community life at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights, brings personal experience and wisdom from dealing with the challenges of widowhood.
Cooper, who has now served at Plymouth for about a year and a half, told the Eagle that she found her niche in hospice care. “It was really a very special time in my life,” she said. “I could help hundreds of people by just being there — by listening.”
The ability to listen without interrupting, and to give one’s full attention to another person’s story, is a pastoral gift. And Cooper gained several valuable insights from those she helped.
“When you’re grieving, you don’t want a pep talk. You want to recognize the pain. You want other people to realize [that] you’re hurting. Everyone grieves differently. We want to give a map: ‘Here’s how to grieve.’ All griefs are different, even within the same person.”
But it isn’t always easy for the person who is trying to offer comfort to the bereaved.
“We want to make it better,” Cooper said. “We’re uncomfortable with death and dying. We’re uncomfortable with grief. So you hear a lot of platitudes. You hear: ‘Time will make you better.’ You hear things like, ‘Stay busy.’ Or, ‘Don’t be sad.’ These expressions are just not comforting for most people.”
Being patient with someone who’s grieving is also important. “Do not expect them to be cheery during the holiday season. They might not want to decorate the house this year. Don’t pressure them to do that. It’s okay for them to change traditions — to do things differently the holiday season when they’re grieving.”
Cooper said, “Last year, we actually taught a class on how to help those who grieve in your faith community. We talked about how a lot of people will say religious phrases to comfort somebody: ‘You have another angel in heaven.’ Or, ‘It’s all part of God’s plan,’ or, ‘It’s God’s will.’ Those kinds of religious phrases can actually be spiritually and emotionally damaging to people.
“Also, offer some tangible help to that person,” she continued. “Saying, ‘Let me know what I can do’ is a very vague phrase, and it puts more work on top of the griever to come up with ideas of how people can help them. You can say something like, ‘Look, I’m going to provide you dinners. I’m going to bring it over.’ Be specific in your ideas for helping them, especially during the holidays, which are so hard, and it’s exhausting. Offer to go shopping for them. Say, ‘Give me a list. I’ll do your Christmas shopping for you this year.’”
Grace Church’s Meyer arrived here in November. When her husband died 15 years ago at age 38, Meyer was a priest serving a parish in Colorado. Her ability to talk about her experience actually created common ground with others. She emphasizes that she is not a grief counselor, but is available to listen whenever needed.
“I was both grieving as a wife, and was offering up my experience of grieving with the congregation to help them, and to receive help from them,” she said. “So when Carl died, a lot of folks came to me with their stories of loss. I found that leading into a deeper connection with each other. Loss is a part of life.”
Meyer preached her first Grace Church sermon as a widow’s testimony of God’s intervention in her life. She offered suggestions on offering one’s sympathies and help.
“Just being able to say, ‘I’m thinking of you, I know this is a hard time,’” she stressed. “They don’t realize they can make it better simply by saying, ‘I see you, I see your grief.’ That’s all you have to do. You just have to reach out to somebody.”
Meyer said, “I find the faith rituals of the season helpful but even home rituals work. This could be as simple as lighting a candle next to a photograph, putting up a special decoration, and calling someone who also knew and cared about my husband to tell them what I was doing and to share a memory or story.”
Both Cooper and Meyer emphasize the importance of protecting one’s health and being flexible with oneself or another grieving person.
In 2017, Plymouth started offering a Blue Christmas service, a liturgy that churches across several denominations have developed and customized to meet the needs of the bereaved.
“That came out of an idea of trying to help people during the holidays who were grieving, who were depressed, maybe had a job loss…just to recognize that sometimes Christmas is not all full of joy, and love and peace for some,” Cooper explained. “That special worship took place on Dec. 5 and will become an annual tradition at Plymouth.”
Plymouth will also be offering a grief support group starting in January. The group will convene for four consecutive Thursday evenings. A video presentation on recognizing the signs of grief and self-care will begin the talks.
“These short video clips are conversation starters,” Cooper said. “Then I’ll ask some helpful questions, and then allow people to respond. I’ll make it clear in our group session that it’s not our job to help fix people’s pain. We’re not there to give advice, or tell someone a right or wrong way to grieve. We’re just there to be listening ears to one another in a confidential setting.”