How Christians can help those grieving during the holidays
To help comfort those mourning a loved one this holiday…
EDMOND, Okla. — Twelve days before Christmas, Allen and Jeanette Wiederstein celebrated the graduation of their 22-year-old grandson, Hunter, from Oklahoma Christian University.
They thought about how proud his mother, April, would have been. The Wiedersteins lost their beloved daughter in 2003, exactly a month before Hunter’s sixth birthday.
They wished, too, that his Uncle Brent could have shared in the happy day. Before his sudden death two years ago, Brent had become “like a dad” to Hunter and his younger brother, Clay.
But above all, the Christian couple praised the “God of all comfort” — as described in 2 Corinthians 1:3 — for the joyful moment.
“I hear that Scripture quoted in my family more than any other,” said Hunter, an aspiring minister who legally changed his last name to Wiederstein in 2017. “Losing two (adult) children in a family as close as ours made me question God so much. I can honestly say my anchors were my grandparents, who were unwavering in their confidence that God was with us every step of the way.”
For Allen and Jeanette, longtime members of the Edmond Church of Christ in this suburb north of Oklahoma City, burying two of their three adult children brought overwhelming grief.
But rather than turn away from God, the couple — who met and fell in love as Southwestern Oklahoma State University students a half-century ago — leaned into their faith.
They even developed a GriefShare ministry at their home congregation.
“They remind me a lot of Job in the Old Testament,” said Randy Roper, the Edmond church’s preaching minister. “Like Job, their pain is unthinkable, and they have big questions for God. But at the end of the day, they submit to the sovereignty of God and trust that he is still at work in the world.”
Still, the pain lingers.
Tears fall at times both expected and not.
“You start getting that panicky feeling: ‘Oh, the holidays are coming.’”
“I don’t believe in closure,” said Allen, 71, a semi-retired life insurance agent and middle school substitute teacher. “I don’t believe you get over it. I believe you learn to live with it.”
This time of year, memories are easily stirred by images of Santa Claus, colorful wrapping paper and happy children. For those who have lost loved ones, those once-merry recollections may trigger pain or anxiety.
“You start getting that panicky feeling: ‘Oh, the holidays are coming,’” said Jeanette, 70, a pre-K teacher at Oklahoma Christian Academy in Edmond. “I don’t like to go in the stores and hear the Christmas music.”
“That’s why God invented Amazon,” Allen suggested.
At age 8, April Wiederstein required open-heart surgery.
Afterward, the doctor told her parents she needed to be physically active. So they signed up April and her brothers — Brent and Heath — for YMCA co-ed sports teams.
“So she’s dribbling the ball down the court, and I said, ‘April, shoot!’” Allen recalled. “And during halftime, I went up to her and said, ‘Sweetheart, if you get a chance to shoot the ball, go ahead and shoot it.’”
She looked up at him and smiled.
“Dad, I’m a dribbler, not a shooter,” she told him.
Another time, her father pulled an envelope out of the mailbox and exclaimed: “$475!”
“What is it, Dad?” April asked.
“It’s the stinking electric bill,” he explained.
“Oh, I thought you was a winner!” she replied.
Allen still chuckles at the little moments that remain so fresh in his mind.
Years later, a grown-up April was living again at her parents’ home. At 31, she was divorced, caring for Hunter and his 16-month-old brother, Clay, and unwell: She needed gallbladder surgery.
April went into the hospital for the surgery but never recovered. She developed a septic infection and died three weeks later.
Before her June 12, 2003, passing, Allen and Jeanette had trained to serve as facilitators at The Kids’ Place, a faith-based support group for children mourning a loved one.
“We just thought that was something we could do,” Jeanette said of helping at The Kids’ Place, which grew out of counseling efforts after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “We were getting older. We thought we could help those kids.”
After April’s death, Clay Wiederstein, now an Oklahoma Christian Academy senior, was too young to benefit from The Kids’ Place. But the ministry offered solace for Hunter, who missed sitting on his mom’s lap and singing church songs.
“It was like God kind of prepared us a little bit. The main thing is that it helped Hunter. It was like, ‘We have a resource we know.’”
“It was like God kind of prepared us a little bit,” Jeanette said. “The main thing is that it helped Hunter. It was like, ‘We have a resource we know.’”
Now, Hunter volunteers at The Kids’ Place, a ministry of the Edmond church.
April’s death strained her parents’ marriage, even if they didn’t recognize it fully at the time.
A big part of the reason: People grieve differently.
The Wiedersteins certainly did.
Jeanette is a quiet person. Opening up about her loss was difficult for her. She stayed home and focused on caring for the boys.
Allen is a talker. On the job, he wasn’t shy about talking about his daughter. But then he’d become angry because he couldn’t fix what went wrong. Often, he’d direct his frustration toward Jeanette.
“So these were things we had to get help with,” she said.
Later, they approached Edmond church leaders about starting the GriefShare ministry to benefit others. They saw it as a way to honor April and her memory.
“I don’t think any of us believe God caused their loss so they could help others, but we do believe God is using their loss to bless others,” Roper said. “They have such empathy and compassion for all people, but especially for people who are grieving.”
Nothing ever prepares a parent to lose a child.
But in some ways, Allen and Jeanette knew better how to cope when son Brent Wiederstein — 48-year-old husband of Debbie and father of Ryan and Devan — died on Oct. 19, 2017. Fourteen years after their daughter’s death, their hard-fought battle together had taught them lessons that resonated strongly as tears fell for their son.
“We realized that, if we’re feeling angry, it’s not really at each other,” Jeanette said.
Brent, an avid hunter who lived next door to his brother, Heath, was known for the “epic” Fourth of July parties that he organized. He was a devoted Christian who helped his wife of 27 years teach children’s classes at the Edmond church and liked treating the children to doughnuts. Brent was one of several family members present at the courthouse when Hunter and Clay’s name change was approved. Brent smiles broadly in photos from the day.
The Wiedersteins still don’t understand exactly what happened. Brent had complained of fatigue and ended up in the hospital. He succumbed to liver failure after four days.
Heath Wiederstein, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, found himself as the only surviving sibling. The husband of Tiffany and father of Ian, 15, and Brody, 11, Heath texts his extended family a daily devotional to help work through their grief.
“As painful as it is losing your children, maybe more painful is watching your family hurt,” said Jeanette, who noted that Brent became close to Hunter and Clay after they lost their mother, taking them fishing and cheering on the local NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Brent also adored his twin nieces, Cara and Makayla Cecil, daughters of Debbie’s sister Michelle Shotts Cecil, a single mother. He made sure Cara and Makayla, now Oklahoma Christian University students, had party dresses and anything else they needed.
“You can’t take away the pain,” Jeanette said, praising the resiliency of Debbie and Brent’s children, Ryan, 24, and Devan, 20. “We have six grandchildren, and four of our grandchildren have lost a parent. So we try to be strong.”
Related: God can heal a broken heart
Related: God can heal a broken heart
The Wiedersteins view children as gifts from God.
“They were our gifts for as long as he allowed,” Jeanette said. “And we were totally blessed by each of them.”
Said Allen: “They loved the Lord, and they’re experiencing his glory. It’s selfish to want them to come back down here.”
The first holiday season after April’s death, Allen put up the decorations as usual, despite Jeanette’s hesitancy.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have,” he said.
In the years since, they’ve approached the season in different ways, respecting how family members are feeling and talking through plans.
For 2019, instead of buying gifts and wrapping them, the extended family chose to meet at Allen and Jeanette’s house for breakfast on a Saturday before Christmas.
Since the grandchildren are older, Allen and Jeanette planned to give everyone money and stockings. Then the entire family looked forward to going shopping, eating lunch out together and watching a movie.
That’s what works for the Wiedersteins. To other grieving families wondering how to approach the holidays, “whatever fits your family” is the Wiedersteins’ advice.
“Some people choose to go on a ski trip or do something different than what they’ve done before,” Jeanette said. “And they might have to do that for a year or two and then, as they feel like it, go back into the other.
“You’ve got to feel your way through that maze to see what’s going to work best for you.”
“Or, they may think, ‘This is what works for us. This is what we’re going to do now.’ You’ve got to feel your way through that maze to see what’s going to work best for you.”
On Dec. 25, the entire Wiederstein family plans to gather at a relative’s Missouri cabin, 400 miles from Edmond.
On the agenda: hunting and riding four-wheelers.
“We’re not running from it,” Allen said of the memories at home. “We’re just spending time together.”
The Wiedersteins say they realize how fleeting life can be. Time together, then, is the most precious gift of all.
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