TRAVERSE CITY — For the past four years, Wendy Helmka has helped organize a church service for people grieving during the holidays.
This year, it's personal.
Helmka's mother, Sue Ellen Murton, 68, died this month.
Helmka's experiences with her mother's illness, her father's reaction and the oncoming Christmas frenzy have inspired her homily for this Sunday's service.
"The whole concept is for people who are having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, they've lost the joy of Christmas," Helmka said. "Blue Christmas," a nondenominational service, is scheduled for 4 p.m. (see sidebar).
The Rev. Jane Lippert, pastor at Traverse Bay United Methodist Church, likes that the service is being held at the beginning of Advent. Other places where she's served held a healing service between Christmas and New Year's.
"This will help them claim the hope that's in Advent," she said. "It's a fun, joyous time, but it's also about spiritual reflection."
Besides illness or death, Christmas can be tough for people going through a divorce or having their children somewhere else for the first time, Lippert said. "At holiday time, these things are more clearly defined because of the scenes of families."
"Blue Christmas" will feature sacred dances, music, candlelighting and a healing service, Helmka said. "Whatever your hurt is, whatever your pain is, you can ... get in the spirit of Christmas," she said. "We'll walk people through their grief and out the other side."
Helmka wants to emphasize that the way to face a tough situation isn't by turning away from it, like her dad tended to do, but facing it head-on and seeking God's help.
She used a poem by Ann Weems, "Toward the Light," as her inspiration.
Barbara McIntyre, an art therapist with Munson Hospice, said it's important to talk about people who have died. "Don't be afraid to say the person's name," she said. "The word 'mourning' ... means 'to remember.'"
She said adults and children at a workshop she led earlier this month made ornaments and other decorations. Some made fish-shaped decorations for loved ones who liked to fish while others found solace is just being able to share memories.
Ask about Christmas memories — happy or sad — to get a person talking, McIntyre said.
And if you're the one who's sad, don't try to do everything yourself, said Nancy Elmore, program coordinator at Michael's Place, a center for grieving families.
If you want to send out cards — which many people don't in the year following the death of a loved one — get help addressing them. If your kids want to buy presents for mom, but dad isn't there to take them shopping, have a friend take them. If you decide to put up a tree, don't try to do it alone.
Elmore recommends starting new traditions, like the candlelighting ceremony Michael's Place is holding Dec. 6 (see sidebar).
"You honor the person who died and acknowledge the loss," she said. "Pretending that nothing has changed doesn't work."