IRONDEQUOIT — Hundreds of colorful paper leaves adorn the paper trees set up in prominent locations on each of St. Ann’s Community’s Chapel Oaks, Cherry Ridge and Portland Avenue communities. Each leaf bears the name of a loved one who is mourned and remembered by a St. Ann’s resident.
“When people pass, by they can pray for those loved ones, and our elders can come and see the names and know that they’re still being remembered,” explained Sister of St. Joseph Mary Louise Mitchell, St. Ann’s director of pastoral care.
The creation of these “trees of life” was part of a series of November events focused on “honoring the holidays with hope,” Sister Mitchell said. These events were intended to help those grieving the loss of a loved one to find hope during the holiday season, she said.
The theme — coping with grief around the holidays — is a common one around area parishes and institutions during this time of year. In Auburn in late October, for example, Sacred Heart Parish’s pastoral minister, Bernie Tomasso, offered a “Surviving the Holidays” seminar designed to help grieving people prepare for the holidays and discover hope for the future. And in Ithaca, St. Catherine of Siena Parish offered a mid-November dinner for individuals who were worried about facing family gatherings and traditions after facing the loss of a loved one.
“Most of the time people want to either block out the holidays or jump over the holidays because they don’t think they can handle missing the loved one who’s died,” Sister Mitchell said, pointing out that she addressed this fear during the two discussions she led at St. Ann’s Community in November. “One of my key premises was that if we don’t acknowledge the loss and we don’t really let ourselves experience it, we miss the gift that the person was, and we miss the reality that they’re still with us.”
Sister Mitchell knew a woman who encouraged her children to carry on many of their family’s holiday traditions even after their father passed away.
“She said, ‘OK, we’re going to continue those, because Dad would want us to.’ Even though they cried through most of the rituals, they had a sense he was still there,” Sister Mitchell said.
The woman also told her children that they had to come up with a new ritual, because they had to go on living with their father in their hearts, even if he wasn’t physically present with them, Sister Mitchell added.
Our hearts can sense the presence of our deceased loved ones even if our eyes can’t, and the Catholic Church teaches us that these loved ones — the communion of saints — are still with us, she said.
This knowledge does not take away the grief we feel over the loss of a loved one, nor should it, Sister Mitchell noted.
“If we honor our grief, it will not stay forever. It’s when we ignore or deny our grief that it tends to stay, because we don’t process it,” she said. “You can’t honor your grief if you don’t have hope. There are so many different definitions of hope, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s trusting that love will never end. ‚Ä¶ The reality is when we can trust that love won’t end, then you have the hope that you need to continue on.”
Acknowledging and being present to their grief helps individuals become more compassionate, Sister Mitchell said. And reaching out with compassion and doing small things for other can help people who are grieving to find hope and meaning in their own lives, added Elaine Mansfield, an Ithaca resident and author of Leaning Into Love: A Spiritual Journey Through Grief. In early November, Mansfield visited Cherry Ridge and Chapel Oaks and gave presentations about building resilience and hope in the aftermath of loss.
Mansfield said when she feels crushed under the weight of the losses she’s experienced — which include her husband of 42 years, her hearing in one ear and her only sibling — she goes to a public place like a grocery store.
“Instead of focusing only on how lousy I feel, I just try to look at other people and recognize that they’re probably struggling too. Most everyone is, and if they’re not at that moment, they’re going to be later,” Mansfield said. “I just try to reach out with my heart towards everyone — the ones who are suffering, the ones who will suffer later — and it makes me feel part of the community of life.”