Sunday, May 16, 2021
May 16, 2021

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Support during the Longest Night

Services, churches help those struggling through holiday season — especially people grieving

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Memory boxes created recently by clients at a grief healing workshop led by Margaret Hartsook, art therapist.
Memory boxes created recently by clients at a grief healing workshop led by Margaret Hartsook, art therapist. (Courtesy Margaret Hartsook) Photo Gallery

It starts right after Halloween: The shimmering notes of Christmas music, the green and red-dominated print ads and grocery store end caps loaded down with assorted nuts and glac? fruits.

It seems to come earlier and earlier with each year that passes. We haven’t even come down from the Halloween candy high when we are swept into the next season of excess.

But what if your days are not “merry and bright?” How do you navigate the months of potlucks, parties and holiday events when you’re grieving or in crisis?

There’s help. Several churches and nonprofits offer services and workshops for people who are struggling to navigate the holidays for any number of reasons — but especially those who have lost loved ones or are dealing with health problems.

Illuminating the darkness

Doris LeCount of Felida was out of town visiting her daughter on the Thanksgiving following the death of her husband, Ken, when she read about a Longest Night service designed to help people in a situation just like hers.

Resources holds weekly local support groups in both Ridgefield and Vancouver at four separate locations. Each weekly session includes group support, a journal and grief lessons on DVD. You may attend any of the 13-week sessions at any time and do not have to start from the beginning. Visit for days and times.

Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center Spiritual Care, 360-487-3444,

“Expressions of Healing — Art & Community: Support for Adults with Cancer,” art therapy sessions, Legacy Health Cancer Institute, Margaret Hartsook, art therapist, 503-413-8404.

Recommended by Chaplain Barbara Harris: “Understanding Your Grief,” by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D; “A Pilgrimage Through Grief,” by James Miller.

“My grief was still very, very, raw, and I thought, ‘We need to do this at St. John (Lutheran Church),’ ” said LeCount, 66. She was inspired to help others who are struggling with the grieving process during a time when they face expectations for merriment and festivity.

As a result, LeCount and a group from her Bible study group at St. John have provided leadership for the past five years for its Longest Night service. It’s scheduled on Dec. 21, the winter solstice– the longest, darkest night of the year.

“It is quiet, contemplative and includes readings and scripture and music, singing, some prayers — a respite from the busy season,” LeCount says.

The centerpiece of the service is a time of personal response where the sanctuary’s altar is covered with unlit candles representing congregants’ burdens. As they come forward, they light a small taper from the Christ candle, then from the taper ignite as many unlit candles as they wish, symbolically bringing the light of Christ to their burdens. At the end, the entire altar is awash with the light of Christ.

“By the time people leave, we hope they will have peace and encouragement that Jesus never leaves them, even in sorrow. Jesus is always with them,” LeCount said.

Making it through

Some self-care tips for getting through the holidays, from the Rev. Barbara Harris:

Plan ahead what will be expected of you and what will be life-giving for you. You may want to celebrate holidays the same way you always have or want something slightly different. Although sometimes it’s comforting to do the same thing, it’s important to plan and not just fall into holidays.

Inform family and friends what your needs are and are not. Surround yourself with people who are supportive.

Get adequate sleep and exercise. Stay healthy.

Simplify and choose what’s meaningful for you. Limit commitments. Lower expectations.

Be willing to ask for help with decorating, cooking, cleaning, etc. You don’t have to do it all alone.

Listen to music, appreciate nature and art. Feed your soul however that means to you.

Every day, do something to care for yourself. Smell a flower, practice courage in one small way. List one thing you do well. Re-read a book you loved. Begin a daily ritual of candle lighting.

Embrace your memories through looking at photos and mementos. It’s important to enjoy your memories and also to engage in the loss.

Allow tears; they are normal.

— Kay Richardson

Similarly, Vancouver’s St. Andrew Lutheran Church’s service of comfort, hope and healing offers support through several sensory experiences, in addition to a remembrance candle lighting.

“People come looking for comfort, hoping to find a way to move forward,” the Rev. Martha Maier said of those who come to the church’s annual service which includes music, comforting readings from the Psalms and healing prayers.

Congregation members who have lived through a process of healing share their stories during the gathering, and people enjoy hearing them, Maier said. It helps knowing they are not the only ones, that there are others who have struggled and managed to move forward. During another portion of the service, healing ministers lay hands on the heads of people who come forward for healing prayer, utilizing the ritual of anointing with oil as a traditional salve for wounds.

“Salvation is related to healing, wholeness,” said Maier. “The Greek word for salvation, ‘sozein,’ means ‘to heal or save.’ ”

Those who are hurting find themselves supported when others are praying for them, Maier said. It is also meaningful for the trained prayer ministers to help others. She said the rituals in the service bring a sense of meaning in ways that words alone fail.

“We are a group who are not embarrassed by tears,” says St. Johns’ LeCount. “So many try to hold them back, afraid it shows weakness. Tears are not part of everyone’s experience, but the service allows them to acknowledge their sadness and then know there is hope. You’re not always going to be this way. You don’t have to get better before God is with you; he’s with you right now. In the midst of the sorrow, God is with you. I believe tears are a gift.”

‘Grief is hard work’

The Rev. Barbara Harris, chaplain for spiritual care at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, says her suggested theme for those striving to endure the holidays is “self-care.”

“Grief is hard work,” she said. “Physically, sadness takes energy from us. The energy we might take for other activities is not there. … It’s work to consider, ‘How is my life different now?’ It deserves time and energy, and it’s essential to be with your grief in order to heal. It’s a garden in our spirit we need to tend, nurture; new seeds of growth take energy.

“People sometimes feel like they’re going crazy, but everyone’s experience is unique,” she said. “We tell them to trust their own timeline, their own hunches.”

Harris tells her clients to be gentle with themselves and to trust that they know what they need. Others often don’t know what to do to be helpful, and many believe the best approach is to offer solutions, telling them simply to “get into the spirit of the holidays.”

“But they need to accept your feelings and give support,” she said. “Healing will come, but you may not be there — yet.”

It’s important to engage in the loss of a loved one, according to Harris. Healthy grieving is not about getting over it and moving on, but creating an enduring connection to the one you’ve lost.

“That person has made an enduring influence, and whether they’re present or not, they’re present emotionally within us,” Harris said.

Harris and Margaret Hartsook, an art therapist for the Legacy system, recently held a workshop for those navigating grief called “Getting Through the Holidays.” It incorporated grief education, music and a hands-on art project.

The memory boxes her clients created during the workshop give them something physical that not only honors their loved one but helps facilitate ice-breaking conversations when family and friends feel awkward or fearful in their efforts to support the survivor. It creates openings to say, “Remember when he …” or, “He always loved … ”

If You Go: Services

A sampling of area Longest Night/Blue Christmas services:

• Service of remembrance, 1:30 p.m. today, Church of the Good Shepherd, 805 S.E. Ellsworth Road, Vancouver.

• Advent service of comfort, hope and healing, 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 5607 N.E. Gher Road, Vancouver.

• Blue Christmas, 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, 12513 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

• Longest Night, 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21, St. John Lutheran, 11005 N.E. Highway 99, Vancouver.

• Blue Christmas, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22, First United Methodist Church, 401 E. 33rd St., Vancouver.

• Longest Night service, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22, Ridgefield Church of the Nazarene, 747 Pioneer St., Ridgefield.

The boxes contain mementos and photos of the person along with notes and items from nature that the person may have loved, collected or are reminders of their favorite things.

“They help him or her not be invisible, like they’re not forgotten among all the Christmas stuff,” said Hartsook.