When I was a child, Christmas was the best time of the year.
Back in the 1950s, adults in my hometown created a fantasy world that I willingly entered. Town officials hung decorations on the light poles along the main business street. Around Dec. 10, my family picked out a freshly-cut tree and spent a whole evening decorating it with lights and homemade ornaments. And in the days following, presents magically appeared under the tree.
In those days, I believed that reindeer could fly and that Santa somehow made it to every child’s home in one night. My fantasy continued at the 7:30 p.m. service at First Lutheran Church, which always featured a 30-foot tall tree tastefully adorned with white lights and religious symbols. At the end of the service, we’d sing “Silent Night” in candle light.
My mom always made rice pudding and sausage for dinner and “hid” an almond in one of the bowls. Our tradition was that whoever got the almond could open their present first. Somehow I always got the almond.
Christmas music would be playing in almost every store—happy songs with lyrics like “It’s the most wonderful time of the year/ With kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you ‘be of good cheer.'”
The magical door to that fantasy world closed on me forever in January 1970 when my father died unexpectedly at the age of 50. I was a senior in college. The following Christmas my mom and I made a half-hearted attempt at creating that alternate reality, but it didn’t work. The “elephant” in the room, so to speak, was the empty chair at the dinner table. Grieving the loss of my dad made my mother irritable. It made me depressed. “Silent Night” at First Lutheran brought tears to my eyes instead of a smile to my face.
I remember how my mom and I resisted going to gatherings which were supposed to be full of cheer. It was just too much work to pretend that we had holiday spirit.
As it turns out, a whole lot of people feel the same way right now as my mom and I did almost 45 years ago. Google “holiday blues” and you’ll find enough reading for a week.
“Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for some people they are anything but,” an article on wellness site HealthLine.com reads. “Depression may occur at any time of the year, but the stress and anxiety during the months of November and December may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.”
I wish I could have read that back in 1971, because part of my deep sadness was caused by feeling depressed because I was depressed. In other words, I reacted to the loss of my father by withdrawing and isolating myself.
“I’m the only person in the world who is feeling this way when everyone else is having a holly jolly Christmas or Hanukah or whatever,” I remember thinking.
Over the years, I’ve come up with the image of an amplifier to describe what the holidays often do to how we feel. What I mean is that if life is going great for you, the holidays will make you feel even better and amp up those good feelings. But if you are in the pits, the holidays most likely will make you feel even worse. That, at least, is what has happened to me over the last 70 years.
So, if I greet you with God’s peace next month instead of Merry Christmas, I hope you’ll understand where I’m coming from. And if you decide you don’t want to stay in the pits, here are some coping mechanisms I’ve learned from my losses I’ve gone through.
Don’t be ashamed or afraid to seek professional help.
There is no magic escape hatch through which you can escape the pain. If the opioid epidemic has taught us anything, it’s that there is no magic pill out there that can make the hurt go away, not in the long run. Or, as the leaders of my divorce support group 30 years ago used to say, “The only way out of pain is through it.”
Even if it is uncomfortable to do so, keep doing the things, in measured doses, that gave you comfort and meaning before your loss. For example, I love camping. In the spring after my dad died, I decided to drive up to Wisconsin and let nature heal me. It didn’t seem to work, at least not much. That’s because that sort of thing is less like Oxycontin, which gives you short-run relief but long-run misery. It’s more like physical therapy, which heals when you repeat the exercises, though temporarily uncomfortable, over and over and over.
Find people who are going through what you are going through but don’t want to stay there forever. Find people who, when you tell them your story, will nod their heads as if to say, “I know what you mean.”
Avoid people who wallow in their pain, who seem to want to stay stuck.
Pretending is hard work. We all have to do it to survive. No one wants to start sobbing in the cereal aisle at Ed’s Way for no apparent reason, so we gather up our emotional energy, do what we have to do, and heave a sigh of relief when we get home. Getting out of the house and ourselves is necessary, but be kind to yourself. Grieving a loss is very, very hard work.
Find the stories in your tradition that resonate and heal, that help you walk through the darkness and not be afraid.