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Daniel Rubin: A holiday gathering for those who feel devastated

A Facebook friend put up his Christmas tree Monday, then wondered how he and his wife could ever celebrate, given what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A Facebook friend put up his Christmas tree Monday, then wondered how he and his wife could ever celebrate, given what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Thinking about the families of those 20 kids killed in Newtown, Conn., brought them back to the death of their own child, lost years before to a birth defect.

"I just want to get through this year," he said. Between the deaths of his mother and his wife's father, and then the suicide of a nephew home from Afghanistan, the couple went to more funerals than birthday parties.

I wasn't sure what to say, other than to offer this: Friday night, the longest of the year, a group of people in Wayne will gather for a church service called Blue Christmas.

The worship is meant for anyone who grieves, who worries about a loved one, who feels alone, uncertain, overwhelmed.

Last year, 25 people showed for the inaugural service at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church of Valley Forge. There's room for 250.

"We offer this service to people who feel they don't want to go to church on Christmas or on Christmas Eve," says Ginger Biddle, a suicide expert who serves as the church's pastoral nurse, which means she attends to congregants' spiritual ailments. "It's not so much a celebration of the Christmas season. It's more about bringing hope into the picture."

Biddle is a psychiatric nurse-practitioner at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where she is starting a support group for those who have lost someone to suicide. She lost her nephew that way.

The 16-year-old killed himself in 1995 outside Pittsburgh, where Biddle grew up. He'd given hints of his depths, but no one recognized how much he was hurting before he jumped into the Monongahela River.

After a period of grieving, Biddle threw herself into learning everything she could about prevention. While a graduate student in nursing at Penn, she put in place a suicide risk-assessment training program for the entire university.

"This has been my way of healing," says Biddle, who is 58 and lives in West Chester. "It's brought me joy. It really has."

While this most wonderful time of the year is particularly hard on those who are grieving, it is not the time when suicide is most prevalent. In fact, the period between November and January sees the fewest suicides, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn, which has been tracking reporting on the subject since 2000.

"The anticipation of the holiday, thinking what it will be like without a loved one, is often worse than the actual day," Biddle says. "People have special memories of the holiday with that loved one who is no longer present. People feel pressure to do things like they always did, writing greeting cards, putting up a tree." She counsels moderation, simplicity.

The Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm leads the service, an hour of song, psalms, candle-lighting, and wrapping white ribbons around a blue spruce tree. Those who want to share can talk.

"I think they come into the sanctuary and bring all of the loss and the grief, but here they feel supported," the pastor said. "Here they don't have to put on a happy face, and all of that is accepted."

She acknowledges that the idea of the evening might sound like the biggest downer one could imagine at this time of year, but actually, she said, it has the opposite effect.

"A man called this morning who has a Stage 4 cancer. He told me that last year he found the service extremely hope-filled."