For grieving families facing a newly empty seat at the Christmas table, the holiday season can be a dark time. Surrounded by tidings of comfort and joy, the sorrow they feel can make for an isolating experience.

So for the second year in a row, St. Adalbert Cemetery and Mausoleum has hosted Christmas of Remembrance Masses for families facing their first Christmas without their loved one, providing a liturgy where they can be united in the grief they are experiencing.

The Mass was the idea of St. Adalbert and Holy Trinity cemeteries location manager Paul Bittner and his staff.

“We all know that Christmas is probably the hardest holiday — that and the deceased’s birthday,” said Bittner. “We can’t ignore the fact that they’re missing someone from their family and dance around that issue — but we can be there to offer what we can to make it maybe a little bit easier.”

Two Masses were held, one on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 4, and one Thursday, Dec. 5. Both evenings began with the celebration of Mass, presided over by Fr. Aurelio Perez, Spiritual Director of Cemeteries. His homily emphasized the necessity of trusting in God through grief and resisting the worldly impulse to take ownership of the feeling of sorrow, without regard for the consolation of “God who is our stronghold.”

The pain of a death of a loved one can be so strong that it threatens to “take our eyes off that crucifix,” he said.

“The world can get heavy on our shoulders and in our minds, and we lose our focus,” he said. “Let us be wise and not foolish in thinking that we can do everything by ourselves. By ourselves we can screw up a lot of things. We end up afraid, we end up not trusting, we end up wandering aimlessly, not knowing good from evil and a blessing from a curse. (God) wants us to believe in him so strongly in our hearts, that he has the final word in our lives. No one else. Anything less means that we are in control and that we know everything there is to know.”

Following the Liturgy of the Eucharist, there was a candle-lighting ceremony wherein families could specifically honor the memory of their loved one. Candles bearing the names of the deceased were placed on a table in front of the altar, and families were invited to come forward to light them while accepting an ornament in their loved one’s memory. It was a deeply emotional moment — many openly sobbed as they embraced the cemetery staffers who flanked the table, thanking them for staging this event.

The Mass was followed by a reception with refreshments and Christmas music. There were also horse-drawn carriage rides through the cemetery.

Director of Cemeteries Mary Thiel said she was proud of the initiative Bittner and his staff took in identifying and serving this need of grieving families. Offering programs such as these Christmas Remembrance Masses are right in step with Catholic Funerals and Cemeteries Services’ (CFCS) aim to “really make the cemeteries a part of the community again,” she said.

“We want to let people know that we’re an extension of the parishes and that we’re here to serve them when they need us.”

It was also a “reference point” for cemetery staff to remember why they do what they do, said Bittner. “A lot of times when families come in, they aren’t ready to open up and share their pain with us. But this night, they’re vulnerable. For the staff, it adds a lot — guys, this is why we’re here, because people are hurting.”

The inclusion of Mass was an especially crucial part of the evening, said Thiel.

“Our core purpose is to help people experience the Catholic faith during an end-of-life journey,” she said. “Having that be the nucleus of the whole event really reminds everybody to go to their faith, and reminds them of the Resurrection.”

In the future, Thiel said that CFCS wants to share the idea with other dioceses they serve on a national level. Certainly, she hopes that it will be brought to other cemeteries in the Milwaukee area next year, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to families who have lost someone in the last 12 months.

“This is about grieving well and healing well,” said Bittner. “Whether the loss was yesterday or five years ago.”