The American holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, can mean many things to many people, but most of us would likely agree: the holidays are intense. The healthiest of families can get stressed and cranky, but for grieving families restructured by death or divorce, the additional weight of crushing loss can make this season almost too much to bear.

During the holidays, the church must take special care of its broken and grieving families.

Pray. Pray for the family to feel the gift of Jesus more powerfully than ever. Christmas is above all the celebration that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” no matter what has happened in a person’s life (John 1:5). No one can fix the situation or heal the hurt; healing is Jesus’ role. But we can “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Armed with prayer, lean into the hurting family:

Keep it practical. Think about how Jesus ministered. He spent time with people. He fed them. He ate with them.

So much has changed for a grieving family; keep things normal where you can. Send the Christmas card, even if your friend is grieving the loss of a child that is the same age as your healthy one. If you would have invited them to Thanksgiving dinner or to your Christmas party before the loss, invite them still, but don’t expect them to come or not to come.

Do not judge. People experience grief in very personal ways. Each person in the same family will respond to the loss differently. You can offer help, but you cannot decide for someone else what he or she needs.

A word about attending church: for families who have experienced a fundamental and permanent change, worship can be very painful. This, too, is a loss. The empty chair or spot on the pew is a visual representation of that gaping absence. Being sensitive to the fact that church can be difficult will likely help the altered family reintegrate into the community more comfortably.

Be unoffendable. Do not burden a grieving family with your expectations. If no one replies to your text or thanks you for your gift, that does not mean your kindness was not felt or appreciated.

Acknowledge the loss. This is especially true if a loved one has died. Most (not all!) grieving people love to hear their loved one’s name. Share a happy story or write a letter about that lost one.

Don’t forget: the loss will still be there in January, after Thanksgiving and Christmas, that bleakest and most anticlimactic time of the year. Let the consistent and persistent friendship of Christ to you be your example, for months and years to come.

Email JoMarie at jomarie@stcathe.org.