Handling grief in a season of celebration

A gathering Sunday, Dec. 9 at Wadena's Immanuel Lutheran Church brought together people from all walks of life, most suffering from the loss of loved ones.

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A remembrance ornament is hung on a tree with care at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wadena this week. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

A gathering Sunday, Dec. 9 at Wadena's Immanuel Lutheran Church brought together people from all walks of life, most suffering from the loss of loved ones.

Many people were probably at home wrapping gifts for family and friends, planning the trip to relatives or writing down the grocery list for holiday feasts. But for some attending the church's grief event, the thought of facing a family gathering or even thinking of Christmas was cause for great anxiety and a welling of tears.

The loss was fresh on the heart of Chris Brand of rural Deer Creek, who lost his wife Linda in July. The two were working side-by-side to build their dream home together 10 years into their retirement. Chris shared how thankful he was to have had those years with her, only possible because the couple retired early. While not all couples could build a home together, Chris said his wife made it fun.

"My wife was just a pure joy to be with," Brand said. "That's why it's so hard to be without her."

After 41 years of celebrating all of life's events together, he is now working through how to handle these regularly joyous occasions without her.


He recently attended a grief gathering in Alexandria, an event much like another that took place in Wadena on Sunday, Dec. 9. He said it was helpful as it showed him to come up with a plan for the holidays. He decided that he would not hide from Christmas and he would visit his family at his brother's home. In planning for Christmas, Brand said he made a list. On that list he considers things that he thinks he can do this year and those things he's not ready to do. Having that plan may not keep the loss out of his mind, but it helps him manage it better.

Among other things he also learned not to avoid the holiday pain.

"Don't fake it, don't numb the pain," Brand said. " I guess I needed to hear that."

Attending the Alexandria event and Wadena events allowed him to take part in another important part of the grieving process, and that's socializing with others also dealing with grief. They were able to share stories of their loved ones and be heard by others that understood the pain.

One such person who handled nearly insurmountable grief was Deb Hadley, volunteer and bereavement manager at Knute Nelson Hospice. Hadley lost two of her children in less than a year. First, her daughter Kaylie, died of Sudden Unexpected Death from Epilepsy (SUDEP) at age 25. She was a teacher and engaged to be married when she suddenly suffered a seizure while by herself. Then nine months later, her son Tyler died in a car crash. Three other young men were also killed in the crash.

It's now been almost five years since then, and Hadley said she is not only surviving, she's now thriving believing that there was a purpose in her loss. She does not fully understand that purpose, but she has been able to use her loss as a means to help many hurting people.

"People can still have an amazing life," Hadley said of life after loss. "For me, I really found the Lord through this."

Hadley said what was important about the Wadena gathering was that God was at the center of it all. There was time for prayer, singing praise and sharing stories about God's love and support carrying them through the grief.


While Hadley notes the holidays were very hard for her at one time, she said she has had healing take place that has helped her to find beauty once again in her memories in place of pain. While she lost two very dear children, this Christmas she celebrates with her children that remain and sees the great blessings that they have brought her.

"This is the first holiday that I don't dread," Hadley said. "I see God's plan in all of this. I truly believe God brings good from every hardship.

"I miss them and I want them back here but I know it's not part of the plan," Hadley continued.

Hadley works to bring bereavement services to people in need. She also gives motivational speeches, offering hope to those suffering from grief. She takes the opportunity to lead more people to Christ. She believes that life is too short to live any other way. She offered a bit of advice to those who know someone that is grieving. If they are grieving, she said you should show up and just offer to be there. They don't need you to fix anything, just be there and offer to listen.

"If you show up and they don't want you to be there, they will let you know," Hadley said.

December Darkness

The event at Wadena's Immanuel Lutheran Church included a short program, fellowship, a craft and desserts. Knute Nelson assisted with the event, providing practical, "Getting Through the Holidays" resources for those attending. Karvonen and Schuller funeral homes sponsored this event.

The craft portion of the event included ornament making. About 50 people attended the event and each had the opportunity to make a "remembrance ornament" in memory of the loved ones they lost. The clear globe ornaments were filled with beads, ribbons of various colors and a feather, symbolizing interests and personalities of each loved one. Ornaments were then placed on a Christmas tree in the church fellowship hall with a simple message in memory of the lost loved one.


Immanuel Lutheran Church Lead Pastor Nate Loer said this event, now in its third year, grew out of two events, one being the "Getting through the Holidays" event lead by Knute Nelson Hospice and one that the church started, "December Darkness, Unfolding Light". He said the participation basically doubled this year, indicating the need for this type of program.

"There's some losses that are very difficult," Loer said. "We try to provide a space for those people. Probably the best outcome is we provide a place for them to be heard, not to be fixed."

Other resources

If you are suffering from grief and have not found help or resources, Brand noted a resource that he has found helpful. It's called Stephen's Ministry and it offers several books and training talking about dealing with grief. Brand also got connected with someone else that has been through the loss of a loved one. The two meet regularly to share how they are doing and talk about their struggles and strengths.

Brand also noted the daily emails he gets after signing up for them on the Karvonen Funeral Home website, which also has a list of grief support resources. He recalls one message he received that has stuck with him ever since. The message from Vicki Harrison seemed to capture his feelings precisely.

"Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim."

While the thought of Christmas and all that comes with it makes him nervous, he's learning to handle the raging waves to make it out of what he calls, "the deepest pit of his life."

Other local resources include a variety of grief support groups at Tri-County Health Care in Wadena. Check out for details on those meetings.

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