When Christmas Isn’t Very Merry

by Jean Landphair, LMFT

Christmas is supposed to be a time of magic, celebration, and joy. But for some people, it is a time of sadness and feeling alone. Maybe there was a major loss around this time of year, or this is the first Christmas without a loved one. Perhaps one experiences a chronic feeling of loneliness. And seeing everyone else enjoying parties and sentimental celebrations with family intensifies that feeling by comparison.

This may be the year that the kids aren’t coming home for Christmas, or you aren’t able to go home to be with the ones you love. Or possibly there is a lack of belief in the reason for celebrating, and all the fuss seems trite and commercial. Whatever the reason, the “Christmas Blues” is a reality for many people.

It is hard to be grieving when everyone around you is celebrating. If that is your reality, you can give yourself permission to do both. Whether the loss comes from a divorce, losing a job, or the death of someone close, we can acknowledge that loss by doing some activity to commemorate what was lost. Sadness can be positive in that it honors the one or the thing that was lost. The depth of our grieving shows how much we valued that which was lost. So having some small tradition to give voice to that sadness can be a relief. Then, we can give ourselves permission to have fun rather than giving in to depression.

Grief counselors recommend doing something totally different from one’s normal traditions if Christmas is difficult due to a loss. One suggestion would be to take a trip over Christmas. Go somewhere you have always wanted to go. Or have an adventure that will make a different kind of memory for you.

It might also help to give yourself a pass on some of the typical Christmas activities that are stressful for you, such as writing an annual Christmas letter, decorating the house, volunteering for good causes, or even shopping for presents. Grieving is exhausting work, so it is understandable that you wouldn’t have the emotional energy it takes to do everything that you would normally do at this time of year. Anything you can do to lessen stress and gain some comfort is worthwhile.

If loneliness is the major issue for you, consider inviting over a few others who are also alone at Christmas. It is not hard to find them if you let it be known at your work, your church, the gym, or your neighborhood. You can include acquaintances or even strangers who are friends of friends, if you feel brave. Others who are dreading being alone will be so appreciative to be included that they will probably be some of your happiest guests.

To lessen your anxiety about the celebration, let everyone bring some food to contribute to the Christmas meal. For yourself, prepare a few dishes that bring you comfort, are easy to prepare, and consistently come out well. Don’t worry about your house being in perfect shape; others won’t notice the dust in the corners or the mismatched decorations nearly as much as you do!

Use disposable serving ware to make clean-up easy. Plan a mixer or some other games or activities in case people have a hard time talking at first. Most likely, your guests will be so glad to be invited that they will be in a festive mood and easy to entertain once the ice has been broken. Celebrating with friends and acquaintances can be easier and more fun than being with family, especially if one’s family has relationship issues that make holidays painful times to be together.

When you are sad, make the effort to nurture yourself. Brainstorm on things you can do to feel comforted. Some ideas are: playing sweet music, reading a favorite book, watching a beloved movie, going for walks in a beautiful setting, taking a bubble bath, eating a favorite food (though avoid breaking your normal diet so often that weight gain becomes a problem), call or hang out with someone who feels like a warm blanket to you, get a massage, work out, journal your feelings, pray, get a manicure or pedicure, take a nap at an unusual time of day, or play hooky to do something you enjoy. Tell yourself that you are worth the effort, and it is okay to pamper yourself during this especially stressful season.

When feeling blue, it’s easy to focus on what is wrong with life. To combat this, keep a running list of all the things you are thankful for. Add to it whenever you think of something else. Read it over whenever you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself. Life contains both joys and sorrows, and accepting both helps one to feel whole and normal.

Being a blessing to others can also be an antidote to one’s own depressive mood. There are so many opportunities to serve others at Christmas time, that this won’t be hard to do. Look through the newspapers or check online to find charities that are seeking volunteers. Pick an activity that feels safe and easy for you, and just do it! Stepping outside of your sad life for a little bit and giving of yourself to others will often lift your mood.

Worshipping can help lessen the sadness for those who believe in the redemptive message of Christmas. Even if we don’t feel like worshipping, the act of doing it anyway can remind us of God’s great love for us. It is so huge that He gave up His right to be God and became a servant, coming to earth in the form of a humble baby, so that we can draw near to Him. That message can give great comfort to those who can receive it.

And finally, let others who are close to you know that this is a hard Christmas season for you. Ask for their support. Those who love you will want to give it, but they won’t know to do it if you don’t ask for it. Sometimes, our friends are aware that we are struggling, but they don’t know how to help. Again, just tell them what they can do that will help. Social scientists have discovered that it takes less energy to process emotions with someone who is close and trusted than to do it alone. This is one of many clues that people were created for connection. We weren’t meant to do life alone.

The idea of needing people goes against many media messages we get in our culture. Independence and self-sufficiency are idealized. So we sometimes feel guilty for feeling like we need others. Researchers have recently discovered that the human brain is ‘hard-wired’ to long for connection with other important people in our lives. So no need to feel guilty here. The desire for close relationship is in our DNA!

If you feel there is absolutely no one you can count on, find a support group to join. One can find support groups in places like churches, YMCA’s, and other social service agencies. Often they bring together people with a common need, such as people who are grieving, who are battling addiction, who are recently divorced, or have newly settled in that town. Support groups can be safe places to connect with others who are in a similar place. Seeing other people reach out to you can be a great comfort.

If you are so overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness that it is hard to function, it may be time to consider counseling. See “How to Know When to Seek Counseling” for help on how to find a counselor and to know what to expect in therapy sessions.

This year, be proactive and turn this season of grieving and loneliness into a happy time to remember.