Andrea Kennedy(right) shows her daughter Olivia (age 6) blankets that they brought home from the hospital after their daughter Vivian died on the day she was born. The shocking event plunged Andrea into profound sadness and confusion. Kennedy now has three children, is active in her church and volunteers in her community, but baby Vivian is always in her thoughts. Kennedy teaches grief classes for GriefShare, a national faith-based support group that combines video tutorials with scripture readings and journaling and talk therapy. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Offering help, hope when holidays are a season of sorrow

A nondescript classroom inside the Christian Life Center of McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church has been transformed into a festive, holiday setting. Tables are adorned with white cloths, hurricane lamps and candles. There’s an Italian crème cake, cookies and other goodies.

As her 20 or so guests for the evening file in, Andrea Kennedy can feel their hesitation. This is no traditional holiday gathering. Kennedy is a group leader for GriefShare, a faith-based support group for people who’ve lost a loved one. On this cool November evening in Powder Springs, she’s hosting a class called “Surviving the Holidays.”

The Acworth mother of three knows the struggle brought on by loss. If it weren’t for her faith and the love of family, it would have been difficult to survive the 2009 death of her newborn, baby Vivian.

“The loss of a child for me; everything in my future changed in an instant,” said Kennedy. “When we found out that the baby wasn’t going to survive, all of a sudden it was a shock to the system … For us it’s the loss of, we’re never going to have Christmas morning, we’re never going to have a birthday party, we’re never going to have Christmas presents. Her funeral was really the only thing we could ever really do for her.”

Two years after baby Vivian’s death, Kennedy became a GriefShare facilitator. In the fall and spring of most years, she has led a 13-week course that combines workbook activities, scriptures, videos and group discussion. Facilitators walk group members through the practical – such as how to handle their loved ones belongings – and the spiritual. At the end of class, participants are encouraged to consider doing something tangible to honor their loved ones, such as helping others or setting up a memorial fund.

Grief is a complex emotion that must be confronted rather than avoided so that in time, those who’ve experienced a loss can find some measure of peace, experts say. GriefShare facilitators hold stand-alone classes in November and December that specifically address coping with loss during the holidays.

“The sights, the sounds and the smells trigger such memories. It makes for a very difficult time,” said Peggy McBrayer, who along with her husband Tom McBrayer leads GriefShare classes at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Peachtree City.

The McBrayers, both licensed counselors, encourage those who are grieving to set boundaries so they aren’t overwhelmed during the holidays. It’s also important for those who are mourning to be around supportive people. And they shouldn’t hesitate to speak openly about their loved one.

After her husband Lynn died of a heart attack last November, Vivian Newton of Powder Springs could barely muster the strength to return to work, much less observe the holidays. For years, she and Lynn hosted parties for as many as 80 people, complete with her homemade eggnog. Last Christmas, “I didn’t have it in me. When I would walk through the men’s department I would just cry and have to leave the store. I was in a fog.”

This year she’s planning to resume some holiday traditions, with a twist. She’s planning a Ladies Night In, complete with her famous eggnog and a holiday sweater contest.

As Andrea Kennedy ended the video portion of the holiday GriefShare gathering, guests were reminded that Christ was born to take away the pain and suffering of believers. It’s a message that resonates deeply with Kennedy and many of her guests, including Newton.

“Last year, I did good to put up a small Christmas tree. This year I’m going to pull out our regular size tree,” she said. “I’m in a better place and definitely GriefShare helped with that. I choose to move forward.”

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