The holiday blues are no myth.
The seasonal bout of sadness can strike anyone, from the oldest seniors to the youngest children.
Whether it’s a child grieving the loss of a parent, grandparent or sibling, or a lonely senior with no friends or family nearby, the holidays can be isolating.
And it’s completely normal, say mental health officials.
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“The most-wonderful-time-of-year stuff is an unfortunate jingle for the season,” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, based in Arlington, Va. “It sets up expectations that make people feel they’ve failed.”
“People want the holidays to have these connected, happy vibrations and it’s easy to feel short of that.”
There are many triggers in this often frenzied, frazzled season: Financial pressures, illness, divorce, death, addiction. Some find it overwhelming living up to social pressures of shopping, hosting, decorating and socializing. For others, it can be a profound loss, such as a beloved mom or a younger sibling.
In an informal survey last year, the mental illness alliance found that 64 percent of those it polled said they were affected by temporary feelings of anxiety and depression during the holidays.
“Grieving people will have a resurgence of grief at this time. Usually, the first holiday season without the deceased is the most difficult,” but the rush of emotions can also return years later, said Peggy Gulshen, who’s taught a children’s bereavement art therapy group at Sutter Medical Center for more than 30 years.
At a recent graduation gathering for a dozen children, siblings and their families in Gulshen’s program, the tears – and laughter – flowed freely. They wrote their loved one’s name on paper ornaments and hung them on a holiday tree. One family of three curly-haired boys lost their sister, Voxie, four years ago. Two other youngsters, Lucero and Santiago, lost their mother to cancer in June. Every story was heart-wrenching.
Over the eight-week sessions, Gulshen said, each child had processed their loss in different ways: making clay keepsakes, creating a puppet likeness of their loved one, drawing and describing a favorite memory, discussing their good and bad dreams, even pinpointing on an anatomy poster the illness or accident that “caused that person’s body not to work.”
Children approach sadness differently than adults, using art and play more than words, Gulshen said.
For parents such as Erik and Chesshuwa Beckett, the holiday expressions helped bring closure.
“It’s like writing. Any way you can get that comfort of putting your thoughts and feelings into something concrete and visual helps make sense of it,” said Beckett, a Rosemont High School history and English teacher. He attended with his wife and three young sons to cope with the accidental death of their daughter, Voxie.
Holidays can be especially difficult because they’re so bound up in family traditions. When a person is gone, say grandma who hosted the annual family dinner or dad who always led the hunt for a holiday tree, getting through the season can be an emotional struggle.
Rosa Florez, whose daughter died at age 31, just 10 days after a stomach cancer diagnosis, said the art therapy has been hugely helpful for her two grandchildren, Lucero and Santiago. “They’re adjusting to a new normal,” she said, an effort made especially poignant this December because their mom was always a bubbly presence around the holidays.
For families seeking solace during the holidays, Gulshen suggests switching off the electronics and gathering together. “Our technology isolates people. As a family, turn off your cellphones, iPads and TV. Gather around a table and create things, make things, tell stories and remember your loved one.”
Another way to cope is creating new traditions. For this first Christmas, Florez said she and her grandchildren’s extended family plan to visit their mother’s gravesite on Christmas Day. “We’re going to take a table and have breakfast with Mommy,” taking flowers and hot cocoa, said Florez, wiping away tears. “I always tell them, ‘Even if you don’t see Mommy, she’s so proud of you.’”
Helping lonely seniors
At the other end of the spectrum, holidays can feel particularly bereft for seniors, who often have outlived friends and have no family nearby. Some are so-called “elder orphans,” unmarried and childless, with no network of friends or relatives.
This year, AARP teamed up with the federal Eldercare Locator to help prevent isolation among aging adults. AARP estimates that one in five adults over age 50 is affected by isolation, which can be both physically and mentally debilitating.
“It’s amazing how many seniors are alone, even those with family members,” said Linda Whiteside, who manages the telephone reassurance program at nonprofit senior services company Eskaton. Volunteers there make calls to 540 seniors every month in the Sacramento region.
One of her volunteers is Daniel Nielsen, who said he talks with about 40 or 50 people a day, calling to make sure they’re OK. “A surprising number, maybe a third, do not have family they spend holidays with,” he said.
That’s where programs like the Sacramento County Senior Companions Program can be a lifeline, not just during the holidays, but year-round. It matches low-income seniors 55 and older to visit other seniors with physical, emotional or mental health issues.
“The issue really is not having a connection with someone else,” said Mark Snaer, the program’s director. “Your birthday comes up and there’s no one there to celebrate with you. Or it’s the anniversary of your wedding and you’re all alone.”
The program works with Eskaton, the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center and other community groups to match volunteers with seniors who are disabled or isolated, providing transportation or simply conversation.
For Michael Parker, disabled and living on $998 a month at the low-income Ping Yuen affordable housing complex in downtown Sacramento, his senior companion Andre Myhand is like family.
The two were paired soon after Parker got out of alcohol rehab two years ago. On a recent December morning, they bantered and joked like lifelong buddies. “We have times where we irritate each other, but we smooth it out. As my wife says, we’re like brothers,” said Myhand, 63, who also visits four other clients a week.
The two bond over their shared love of sports (Dallas Cowboys and Sacramento Kings) and their ex-U.S. Air Force ties.
“I treasure that man to a T. He’s like my family,” said Parker, 55, who gets around with a walker and cane due to permanent back injuries and cirrhosis of the liver.
Trying to give back to his community, Parker volunteered to cook the turkey for his complex’s holiday dinner and reads to children at Shriner’s Hospital several hours a week this season.
Duckworth, the national mental health alliance’s medical director, is a big believer in seeking out other people to help fight the holiday blues. “Plug into some larger community, whether it’s volunteering in a food pantry or going to a church. It’s being part of something bigger than yourself.”
While the holiday blues can be inevitable to some degree, they don’t have to be pervasive or permanent.
“Be mindful of your expectations,” Duckworth said. “The trap of the holidays is feeling that you’re supposed to experience them in certain ways. Be gentle on yourself.”
Beating the Holiday Blues
For millions of Americans, the holidays can trigger bouts of sadness and loneliness. To cope, here are some tips from Mayo Clinic:
1. Acknowledge feelings. If someone close has died or you can’t be with loved ones, it’s normal to feel sadness or grief. It’s OK to cry and express your feelings.
2. Reach out. Look for neighborhood, community, church or social events. Call a neighbor. Invite a friend for cookies or coffee. Volunteer at a food bank.
3. Be realistic. Holidays don’t have to be perfect or the same as last year. As families change, so can traditions and rituals. Hold onto some and be open to creating new ones.
4. Set aside grievances. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations.
5. Remember loved ones. Make their favorite food, share memories around the dinner table, reminisce with a photo album, light a memorial candle. Consider donating a charitable gift in their honor or helping someone else in their memory.
6. Take a breather. Learn to say no to stressful social or family obligations. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, treat yourself to something that brings joy.
7. Stay healthy. Get enough sleep; limit alcohol; continue exercising, even a simple walk around the block.
National Alliance on Mental Illness has both statewide and Sacramento offices. For the California office, call 916-567-0163 or go to: namica.org. The Sacramento office is at 916-364-1642.
Children’s Bereavement Art Group, hosted by Sutter Medical Center Sacramento, is open to all children, ages 4 to 17, dealing with a loved one’s death. For details, call 916-454-6555.
Sacramento County Senior Companion Program, part of a national network of Area Agency on Aging programs, can be reached at 916-875-3622.
Connect2Affect.org, sponsored by AARP, offers tips on how seniors can avoid isolation and stay socially connected.