Most of us are really looking forward to Christmas. But as we celebrate, please let’s not forget those who have been bereaved, for whom every joyful celebration over the Christmas period will be particularly painful this year.

At the best of times Christmas is difficult for people who have been bereaved. It brings together family and friends in happy occasions, where the absence of those who used to join us is sorely felt. It’s said that grief is the price we pay for love and it’s also true that the happier the memories, the harder it is to face the occasion when a person is gone. For many people bereaved during the pandemic, they haven’t yet faced this Christmas pain. Furthermore, the other family gatherings that would normally ease them gradually into the harsh reality of their loss, such as birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, haven’t happened as much, so this Christmas is likely to hit them hard.

This is on top of the terrible trauma of the death and the disappointment around funerals. Many people who have been bereaved during the pandemic have been denied seeing or speaking to loved ones when they were ill in hospital, worse still when they died. They haven’t been able to be with them at the worst time of their lives, to help or reassure them, to settle issues or to say goodbye. Many haven’t been able to have the funeral of their choice, or be at the funeral, or meet with family and friends, as they would normally do for comfort and support. A large number, therefore, are traumatised from the separation, unable to conceive of the reality of the death and stuck in the early period of shock or numbness, or racked with guilt.

There will now have been over a million deaths since March 2020, leaving many millions of people bereaved this way. And most of these will be young. We tend to think of death only affecting older people but the majority of those who are bereaved at any time are young, since for every older person who dies there are many younger relatives left behind.

One of the concerns is that this grief, which has been put on hold or complicated by the pandemic restrictions, will be suppressed if it doesn’t come to the fore now, since facing the pain at Christmas may feel too much for some people and it will be easier to keep busy and get on with their lives. Unresolved loss can lead to a range of problems, such as anger, relationship breakdown, loss of employment, addiction or mental ill-health. The winter months, with their long, dark nights and cold days, are already bleak for many, and a tsunami of depression and mental ill-health could follow the pandemic if those who have been bereaved during this time are not supported to process their loss.

But the message of Christmas is of light coming into the darkness, of God, Emmanuel, coming to be with us, and of peace and goodwill to all men. A key challenge and opportunity of the pandemic therefore, is to help our bereaved millions to see the light of Jesus this festive season and hope in the life of the church. So how could we do that?

For many people being at carol services and hearing about the coming of Jesus over the Christmas period will speak to their needs, but for bereaved people no amount of surrounding them with joy or messages of good will, will be sufficient. They need to experience the light of Jesus and God with them, through us. The way to help bereaved people is to get in touch – to be alongside them and journey with them through their pain; to acknowledge the difficulties, ask about their loved one, listen to their story and help them with the practical things they face.

Through our Loss and HOPE project we are training and equipping Christians to do just that. We also provide a signposting website for bereaved people to find the wider support that they need: www​.ataloss​.org. An easy way to help bereaved people initially, therefore, is to tell them about AtaLoss​.org over Christmas – the UK’s bereavement signposting website – in carol services and Christmas events or on Christmas letters and cards. And the best way to help them longer term is to be ready to support their grief journey as a church from January.

Churches across the UK are getting ready to help bereaved people in their communities in the new year, in particular, by offering The Bereavement Journey, six sessions of films and facilitated discussion that enable people who have been bereaved in any way and at any time to process and come to terms with their loss. The course has a step-by-step guide with training (if wanted), advertising resources and a team in support. This makes it easy for any church to run both online and in person. Since bereavement almost always leaves people wondering about God and the afterlife, the last, optional session, also helps them with the faith questions they may have. In all, it helps bereaved people in our communities to see Christians as the ears, hands and feet of Jesus and God as a God of love. Over 100 churches are now running the course and reporting that the majority of guests are coming from outside church, with hugely positive feedback.

The way to help bereaved people is to get in touch – to be alongside them and journey with them through their pain; to acknowledge the difficulties, ask about their loved one, listen to their story and help them with the practical things they face.