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'Longest Night' acknowledges holidays carry measure of grief

As congregations light the Advent candles, it’s good to remember those who are gone and those who grieve, say planners of the United Methodist Church’s “Longest Night” service. From left are the Rev. Steve Kaehr, Kevin Caldwell and Phyllis Albert. (River Falls Journal photo by Judy Wiff.)

In the midst of a season of joy and light, some feel mostly darkness and regret. The pressure to feel what they don’t and the contrast between festivities and their own pain compound their loneliness and grief.

Kevin Caldwell knows the feelings.

His father, Frank Caldwell, died this past August, and his wife, Lynn Jermal, died a year and a half ago.

“Thanksgiving was really hard,” said Caldwell. He understood part of the reason but was surprised that the first holiday without his father revived the grief over his wife’s passing.

Caldwell doesn’t expect the Christmas season to be easier. That’s part of the reason he and fellow Methodist Phyllis Albert are planning a “Longest Night” service for Saturday, Dec. 21.

“The name of the service reflects both the reality of the long nights of winter and the long dark nights of the soul as people grieve life losses, especially the loss of loved ones,” said the Rev. Steve Kaehr, pastor of the River Falls United Methodist Church.

“It’s for whatever the season brings up and lays on you,” said Caldwell, who’s finishing his Master's in theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

While this local event set for Dec. 21 is billed as a service of remembrance, the organizers note that the pain some people feel may be related to the loss of a job, a lack of resources or the simple inability to live up to what the culture seems to demand of each of us during the Christmas season.

Albert was introduced to the Longest Night services when she and Caldwell attended a weeklong Stephen Ministry training in Pittsburgh last August. Stephen Ministry prepares laypersons to provide confidential, one-on-one Christ-centered care to people who are struggling through a difficult time in life – such as grief, divorce, job loss and chronic or terminal illness.

The intent of the Longest Night outreach, said Albert, is to “seek strength for the sorrows we hold this Christmas season.”

The service will include candles, music, prayer and silence.

“Our hope is to find the right balance between hard and soft,” said Albert.

Observances of the solstice, whether somber or festive, are nothing new, said Caldwell: “Celebrations of solstice go way, way back. It’s an important part of the human calendar.”

Often, he said, they acknowledge the coming of the dark and cold and the hope for the return of light and warmth.

The Dec. 21 service will provide time and space for reflection and introspection, said Kaehr. “People are not going to be expected to share anything, say anything.”

Caldwell agrees: “The only thing we would ask people to do if they come is to be present.”

So much is demanded of people this time of year, he said, adding that the usual Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services don’t generally leave time for sorrow.

“There is no place in those liturgies to let that out or honor it in some way,” said Caldwell.

“We want to talk about fuzzy sheep and camels,” said Kaehr, agreeing that the “gritty” part of Christmas and the realities of human suffering are often neglected.

Christians do tend to romanticize the birth of Christ rather than focus on what it means, said Caldwell.

The expectant parents Mary and Joseph weren’t invited into a comfortable room, they are bluntly told, “No, we don’t have room in the inn -- you have to go to the barn,” said Caldwell.

Kaehr said service will “acknowledge our loss and what it means to be human.”

Caldwell agreed, “The deity knows what is to both die and to lose a loved one through death.”

After participating in the service, “hopefully people will have a sense of lightening if nothing else,” said Caldwell.

The service will start at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, at the United Methodist Church, 127 S. Second St., River Falls. Coffee and cookies will be served afterwards. Everyone, regardless of church background, is invited.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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