by Nancy Justice
Paul and Betty Neff know a lot about surviving the Christmas holidays with painful memories of happier times. In 1983, they lost four of their five young children when their home was destroyed by fire five days before Christmas. Seven years later, Jon, their sole surviving child, was killed in a tractor accident.
"There's not a day goes by that we don't think about this," Betty told Charisma. "You learn to live with it. It becomes part of your life."
The Neffs found it was too painful celebrating Christmas with the same cherished family traditions, but they didn't want to ignore the holiday. "It would have been very wrong of us," Betty says, "after teaching our children all those years to celebrate Jesus' birthday."
The couple discovered it was best to find new "normals" in their daily life, and at Christmastime that meant finding new traditions. So come Dec. 25 they'll do again what they've done in recent years-share Christmas dinner with a family in need and provide presents for any children.
Paul and Betty resolved their grief and now counsel people who have lost loved ones through illness, accidents or catastrophes. Their ministry started when they heard a news report of a deadly house fire in Florida and traveled there to minister to the surviving parents. Now, upon hearing other such news stories, the Neffs visit or try to at least contact the survivors.
The couple shares how crucial it is for survivors to discuss what happened. "I had been very secretive about how I felt," Betty says. "I thought I was protecting Paul and Jon. I was hurting and didn't want to hurt them."
"It's actually a trick of the enemy," Paul explains. "You hold it inside, and it builds up. Ultimately you go after each other. That's why the divorce rate is so incredibly high among couples who suffer a multiple-loss trauma such as ours."
Paul also says survivors who know Christ must realize they will be attacked by the enemy, maybe even daily.
"Anyone who survives this type of situation is used of the Lord," he says. "The enemy will use every means to draw you down."
And don't be surprised, he adds, if those closest to you cause the most heartache-a common occurrence among survivors they've talked to.
"Close loved ones are grieving, too, and may not know how to deal with it, especially if they aren't Christians. The survivor overcomes it, and when those loved ones see you, they're reminded of their own unresolved grief," he says.
The Neffs' ministry isn't limited to trauma survivors. Once, after reading about a comatose woman in Pennsylvania, the couple traveled to her hospital and prayed for her, as well as for other patients. The woman came out of the coma months later and told Paul and Betty that she remembered praying with them to accept Christ.
"It brings us so much joy to bless others like that," Betty says.
Nancy Justice is the former news editor for Charisma.
How do you minister to people grieving during the holidays?