The Christmas season arrives with a long list of impossibly high expectations – and sometimes an unwelcome guest named depression.
Television commercials promoting holiday excess and family unity can seem downright cruel to those enduring the loss of a loved one or a job, or the end of a marriage. Not to mention all the ads that suggest everyone in town is throwing a party and you’re not invited.
Those who are suffering any type of loss might be inclined to pull back and isolate themselves. But mental health experts and local pastors agree it’s helpful to seek out community support groups, religious or spiritual events and the company of empathetic friends.
Adjusting to absence took years
My own struggle with the Christmas blues began after my father’s fatal heart attack in 1992. Though I had a young family of my own, it took several years to adjust to Dad’s absence from our holiday table.
Now, my widowed mother, whose dementia is rapidly progressing, is back in the hospital. Once Mom is discharged from rehab, it's likely I'll have to make the heart-wrenching decision to move her into a nursing home. Meanwhile, the holiday pressures to shop and make merry feel as heavy as the chains wrapped around Jacob Marley’s ghost.
Lynne Cobb, a Royal Oak resident and journalist whose father passed away in July, understands exactly what I mean.
“I’m a bit ambivalent about Christmas this year,” Cobb told me. “Dad loved celebrating birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all other holidays. With each observance, it just feels like something is missing. The fact that he had Alzheimer's and wasn't really 'with us’ the past few years adds to the sense of loss.”
Gathering for comfort
Not surprisingly, the bright lights of Christmas seem to magnify the proverbial ghosts of grief, loss and lack. Add the seasonal (and cultural) pressure to overindulge in festive food and alcohol, and you’ve got a recipe for the holiday blues.
“I believe that depression can be more distinct when set against all the holiday chaos that screams 'Joy! Cheer! Happy!' – especially when you don’t feel that way,” explained the Rev. John Miller of “It can make people think that the Christmas season is not for them, or that they are wrong for feeling down, which only makes things worse. To reach out and share those feelings is a huge help.”
With that in mind, Rev. Miller started an annual community church service that provides spiritual comfort for those dealing with the holiday blues. Offered at FCC on Monday at 7 p.m., his meditative “Blue Christmas” service will focus on prayer, song and Biblical reflection on Christian figures who had to deal with struggles of their own.
"It is always a rich service, and this year will continue to extend the encouragement that comes from knowing that the birth of Jesus is good news for all, joyful or depressed, famous or infamous, rich or poor," Rev. Miller added.
Similar religious programs in Oakland County include the “Blue Christmas” service at in Farmington Hills at 4 p.m. Dec. 11 and the at at 7 p.m. Dec. 21.
Honor the old; ring in the new
On the home front, Debbie Collins of Birmingham believes it helps to revive old family traditions – or to create new ones – honoring the memory of loved ones. Over the past three years, Collins lost four immediate family members and two beloved pets.
“We have moved through these losses delicately, leaning on the traditions of specially made dishes served for holiday meals,” Collins explained. “Christmas stockings are still placed in front of the fireplace, and we light candles in memory of each loved one. We turn on the chimes of my mother-in-law’s grandfather clock in remembrance of her, and most of all, we talk about precious memories that make us smile.”
Nancy Petterson of Clawson lost her father last year, but rather than giving in to the blues, she gets “reminiscent” and finds comfort in recalling her dad’s favorite expressions of wisdom and advice.
Likewise, Lynn Cobb’s family started a new tradition after her father’s passing in July – a tradition they’ll honor at their first Christmas meal without him.
“At the beginning of each family gathering, we share a story, and then raise a toast in my dad’s honor,” Cobb said. “Our faith is what keeps our family strong, as we know we will see him again. He’ll be at heaven’s gates with that great big smile, waiting for us, just as he waited for us at the front door each and every holiday.”
As for my own family, my dear husband likes to remind me that we have the power to turn off the "Christmas machine" and focus on the simple things that matter most. A few years ago, we started keeping a (mostly) gift-less Christmas, donating money to our favorite charities in honor of deceased loved ones. And now that our grown son is engaged to his longtime girlfriend, we have a new extended family to celebrate.
At some point during the holiday rush, we’ll sit down to uncork a bottle of wine with cherished friends who’ve weathered life’s trials and turning points with us. I’ll take a deep breath and it will hit me that everything is just as it should be –even the imperfect and the undone.
Cindy La Ferle is a Royal Oak resident and author of Writing Home. Copies are available locally at in Berkley. Proceeds from the holiday sales of her book will be donated to the Welcome Inn day shelter in Royal Oak.