Whatever hurts tends to hurt worse around Christmastime. Fortunately, there are ways to cope and brighten your holidays.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
For Maile DeLand, it can be one of the most painful. The 38-year-old Lady Lake resident often finds herself grieving during the holidays over the tragic loss of her mother and stepfather nearly 20 years ago.
In January 1998, Maile, then a senior at Leesburg High School, was at home when she heard four gunshots in quick succession echo down the hallway. Startled by the noise, she walked toward the master bedroom and into a nightmarish scene. Blood and bullet casings surrounded the lifeless bodies of her mother, Kathy Kirby, and stepfather, James Kirby.
Marital problems caused James, a sergeant with the Lady Lake Police Department, to kill his wife and then himself.
“I sometimes dread the holidays,” Maile says. “They say time heals pain, but sometimes time makes it worse because it’s another year without a person in your life whom you loved dearly.”
For Maile, this holiday season will be even more trying. It’s the first Christmas she’ll celebrate without her grandfather, Bobby Einstein, who provided a home for Maile and her four siblings after the untimely death of their parents. He died in March.
“Grandpa and I loved to go Christmas shopping together. If I told him I was going shopping, he would drop everything and tell me to pick him up in 20 minutes,” Maile says. “He always made delicious cube steak and okra for Christmas. It will be hard having Christmas without him.”
The holidays are a time when lights twinkle from rooftops and trees, children invade shopping malls to reveal their wish lists to Santa, and homes are filled with laughter and joy. For Maile and countless others, however, the holiday season brings unwanted guests—sadness or heightened depression. That is especially true for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one, divorce, family conflict, loneliness, mental health issues, or a dizzying array of demands.
“It’s doubtful that people become depressed beginning around Thanksgiving and then magically snap out of it when the holidays end on January 2,” says Dr. Chrisann Reid, a licensed psychotherapist with Lake County-based Central Florida Counseling and Psychological Services. “If they’re depressed during the holidays, then they likely have chronic depression that ebbs and flows throughout the year. However, the holidays can bring it on more intensely. I think most people who are sad only around Christmastime have what I call ‘the holiday blues.’”
A variety of factors can lead to increased depression and the holiday blues, but with effective coping mechanisms, people do not have to spend the holidays in a state of sadness or despair.
Coping with the loss of a loved one
That first holiday season after experiencing the death of a loved one can be an emotionally trying time. All the festivities stir up precious memories, and grievers are expected to be jolly and full of holiday spirit even though they are still coping with loss.
Maile knows that feeling all too well. For her, the missing faces, empty chairs, and silent voices made for a joyless first Christmas without her parents.
“I didn’t even want to celebrate the first Christmas after my parents died,” she says. “I figured there was no reason to celebrate if I couldn’t celebrate with my parents.”
Twenty years later, Maile finds that sadness and grief remain constant companions around the holiday season. However, she lessened the pain years ago by providing herself with the greatest Christmas gift of all—the gift of forgiveness. Doing so helped mend her broken heart and allowed her to move forward to a place of healing.
“My stepfather served in the military and was a very good police officer. He also was very adamant about supporting our family,” she says. “I don’t have any hard feelings toward him, and all the good things he did in life outweigh the one bad thing he did. If he had only shot my mother and was sentenced to life in prison, then I would make special trips to visit him in prison.”
Through her complex journey of healing, she gives herself permission to grieve and cry. And she does not hesitate to let her husband and two children know when she needs extra support or alone time for reflection.
“During the holidays, I’ll tell my husband that I need to go for a drive by myself or spend 20 minutes alone in the bathroom. That helps me pick myself up and keep going,” Maile says.
Joining various Facebook support groups also has been beneficial.
“Interacting with others has allowed me to realize that I’m not alone,” she says. “I can talk to them openly because they understand how hard it is to get through each day and especially the holidays. When you feel yourself getting sad is when you need to reach out to your support systems. Talking to people who experience the same emotions I do and surrounding myself with family, friends, and loved ones helps me fill a void and helps me get through the holidays.”
Another way to deal with loss during the holidays, experts say, is celebrating the life of those who are gone instead of mourning their death.
“What I recommend is creating some ritual to honor that person,” says W. Steven Saunders, a licensed psychologist and owner of Central Florida Psychological Consultants in Clermont. “Honor their presence and honor a tradition they would bring to Christmas. My paternal grandfather was famous for his long-winded prayers before our Christmas dinner. He was a World War II veteran who ended his prayer by blessing our troops overseas. One thing we’d do to honor him is make a donation to veterans’ groups. Doing this kept that part of him alive, which was important to us as a family. It helped us cherish the memories of him in a very positive way.”
*It is a myth that the number of suicides rises during the holidays. Suicide numbers are lower in winter than at any other time of year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Socialize rather than isolate
At times, Donna Barrett of Tavares feels like a fly trapped in amber.
Her depression encases her each day as she struggles to survive the loss of Tom, her husband of 38 years who died in 2013 from leukemia and lymphoma. For her, traditional coping methods—psychologists, support groups, anti-depressants—have proved ineffective.
Donna and Tom never celebrated Christmas, and that’s one holiday tradition she has kept intact since his death. Lights and decorations, food and family, and parties and presents are not part of her Christmas rituals. Until last year, the 71-year-old widow spent Christmas alone reading books.
“Christmas is just another day to me,” she says. “It never gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. I had no desire to be around people on Christmas.”
That social isolation can be detrimental to one’s health. According to a 2015 study conducted at Brigham Young University, there is a 29 percent increased likelihood of death for those who are socially isolated.
“Being disconnected from friends and family members and having a lack of real meaning or purpose for the holidays is unhealthy,” Steven says. “The cure is to reconnect in some capacity with your fellow human beings and find some purpose for yourself beyond your limited needs.”
Volunteering at a soup kitchen, church, or civic organization can be a powerful and rewarding intervention for those who are lonely. Moreover, by helping people who are downtrodden, volunteers see their lives in a new light and develop a greater appreciation for what they have.
“It’s important to turn your focus away from yourself and out toward others,” Steven says. “One thing my kids and I do is adopt a family who would literally not have a Christmas if it weren’t for our intervention. We purchase gift certificates and presents for them. By doing that, my children get to see how being in service to others gives life very rich meaning. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing smiles on the faces of kids when we bring them presents.”
He also encourages his clients to accept Christmas party invitations or spend time with family members.
“The holidays are a great time to reconcile,” he says. “I had one client who hadn’t spoken to his son for 16 years. We called his son right in my office, and the son agreed to visit him for Christmas. That was the first time in years he put up a tree because he had family coming. Feeling even a little bit of joy is better than sitting at home alone and feeding that darkness and sadness.”
Learn to say no
Because Christmas is overly commercialized, families stress about buying the perfect gift and preparing the perfect dinner. They also have busy social calendars. After attending Christmas plays and parties, they rush home to get the last-minute gifts wrapped. And if there’s time, they may even squeeze in a candlelight service at their church.
Simply put, people feel stressed and burdened by the high expectations of Christmas.
“It is OK to say no,” says Chrisann, the Lake County psychotherapist. “Make a list and determine what it is you really want to do. You definitely may want to attend the company Christmas party, but you don’t want to attend your neighbor’s party. You prioritize. Also, don’t feel pressured to host a Christmas party if you don’t have adequate time. Identify what you can do and what you can’t do and live with that decision.”
It is also important to slow down and spend time with loved ones rather than focus too much energy on making Christmas an enormous, picture-perfect event.
“Christmas is ridiculous with people’s expectations of expensive gifts and parties,” Steven says. “I tell people if you have to go into debt over Christmas, you’re doing it wrong. People must remember what the holidays are supposed to be about, which is having a sense of togetherness among family and really enjoying each other. And don’t think you need to cook steak or turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. One year my family had hamburgers and hot dogs, and it ended up being one of the most exciting Christmases we ever had together.”
“Exercise is one of the most effective ways to relieve the holiday blues. You release endorphins, which helps elevate your mood. When people are sad, it’s hard to get motivated to exercise. However, a 15- or 20-minute walk can do you wonders because you’re seeing sunshine and getting fresh air.”
–Chrisann Reid, a Lake County psychotherapist
Don’t dwell on the past
With a new year looming, people often perform a self-assessment. What meaningful things did I accomplish this year? Did I seek that higher position at work? Did I meet my financial goals? Did I lose the weight I promised to lose last year? Did I buy that new car I wanted?
The holiday season should not be a time to ruminate on unmet expectations or things one doesn’t have.
“I often tell people that the only time they can really control is now—the present moment,” Steven says. “That’s where they should focus their time and energy. If you live in the past, that’s a place of depression, and if you dwell on the future, that’s a place of anxiety.”
Moreover, focusing on the past is often accompanied by feelings of anger, guilt, resentment, sorrow, and shame. Feeling these emotions is downright toxic to a person’s mental state.
“When you’re in a sad or darkened state, you remember all the negative things in your past,” Chrisann says. “Instead of stressing about the dream job you were not hired for, tell yourself that today you’re going to do something kind for somebody else and find pleasure in that.”
“Sometimes, I recommend to my clients to have an anti-holiday. One client in particular just moved to Florida by herself and had no family or friends down here. I recommended she go on a cruise. Do something different from what everyone else is doing. At least you’re still doing something rather than sitting at home being sad.”
–W. Steven Saunders, a Lake County psychologist
Seek professional help
If symptoms of the holiday blues—namely anxiety and hopelessness—persist past the holidays, then the holiday blues may really be depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression is the most common type of mental illness, affecting more than 26 percent of the U.S. adult population.
When it becomes unbearable, professional help is recommended. Fortunately, depression can be overcome without medication.
“Oftentimes, people are dealing with issues they do not feel comfortable talking about around family or friends,” Chrisann says. “When clients come to me for counseling, they can talk with an objective person who does not judge them. When you’re depressed at home and see the glass as half empty, it’s hard to get out of that mindset. A therapist can help change that mindset so you’re seeing the glass as half full. More importantly, everything my clients say is confidential, so they have an opportunity to get everything off their chest.”
In addition to seeking help at private mental health practices, Lake County residents can visit LifeStream, a behavioral health and social services organization headquartered in Leesburg.
“If you’re deep in depression, do not wait to seek professional help, because you’ll have more difficulty pulling out of it,” says Jill Baird, senior vice president of clinical services for LifeStream. “We help them recover some of their skill sets that they may have lost during the time they were depressed. We give them hope and help them find a purpose. It’s our job to help them achieve what they want to achieve.”