Health & Medicine

Holiday season not always cheery for everyone

Peggy Gulshen, discusses artwork with Lucero Zamora, 8, at the last of an eight-week final art therapy session dealing with grief on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Zamora and her brother lost their mother to cancer.
Peggy Gulshen, discusses artwork with Lucero Zamora, 8, at the last of an eight-week final art therapy session dealing with grief on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Zamora and her brother lost their mother to cancer.

Holiday blues are no myth.

The annual seasonal 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, saddening, wrenching.

And it’s completely normal, say mental health officials.

“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 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 a survey last year, NAMI reported 64 percent said they are 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 art bereavement 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. One family of three curly-haired boys lost their sister, Voxie, four years ago. Two other youngsters, Lucero and Santiago, were accompanied by their father, aunt, uncle, cousins and lost their 31-year-old mother to cancer in June.

They made paper ornaments with their loved one’s name and hung them on a holiday tree. Over the eight-week sessions, Gulshen said, each had processed their loss in different ways: making clay keepsakes, creating a puppet likeness, 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.”

“It’s like writing,” said Erik Beckett, a Rosemont High School history and English teacher, who attended with his wife and three sons, all named musically. “Any way you can get that comfort of putting your thoughts and feelings into something concrete and visual helps make sense of it.”

Their oldest son, Zildjian, went through Gulshen’s group therapy in 2012, shortly after his sister accidentally died after getting tangled in mini-blind cord. This year, they returned with 6-year-old Strummer, who they felt needed the same cathartic experience.

Zildjian, now 9, showed off a vividly colored explosion of stars, a picture of his sister “going to heaven.” “Doing art is a thing I really like. It got my mind off her.”

Holidays can be especially difficult because they’re so bound up in family traditions. When a particular 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 holidays can be an emotional struggle. In some families, holidays bring back painful memories of past celebrations that were marred by incidents of drug or alcohol abuse.

Rosa Florez, whose daughter died in June 10 days after her 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. In

Gulshen, who’s been running Sutter’s grief therapy program for more than 30 years, said children process sadness differently than adults.

“Kids don’t know how to articulate it into words. They only know how to articulate it in play, art and movement, not in a linguistic, left brain kind of way.”

For families seeking solace in getting through 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 grave on Christmas Day. “We’re going to take a table and have breakfast with Mommy,” taking flowers and hot cocoa. “I always tell them, ‘Even if you don’t see Mommy, she’s so proud of you.’ 

Lonely seniors

At the other end of the spectrum, the holidays can be especially isolating for seniors, many who have no family nearby and have outlived friends or are estranged from both. Some are so-called “elder orphans,” unmarried and childless, with no one at their side.

This year, AARP estimates that one in five adults over age 50 are affected by isolation, which can be both physically and mentally debilitating. That isolation can be especially lonely during the holiday season.

“It’s amazing how many seniors are alone, even those with family members,” said Linda Whiteside, who manages the telephone reassurance program where volunteers make calls to 540 seniors every month throughout the Sacramento region.

Daniel Neilsen, 64, volunteer with a “telephone reassurance” program that’s sponsored by AARP and Eskaton in Sacramento, 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. Sometimes it’s because family members don’t live in town; others never had children.

“The issue really is not having a connection with some else,” said Mark Snaer, director of the Sacramento County Senior Companions Program, which matches low-income seniors 55 and older to visit other seniors with physical, emotional or mental health issues. “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 teams up with the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center, Eskaton and other community groups to match volunteers – low-income individuals who get paid – with seniors, who are disabled or isolated, in need of conversation, transportation to doctor’s appointments or the grocery store. The volunteers get paid mileage and a $2.65 stipend. They don’t provide medical, personal grooming, housekeeping or medical care, but are focused simply on being a companion.

Michael Parkerlives on $998 a month in disability due to cirrhosis of the liver and neuropathy in his feet. In his neatly organized apartment at Ping Yuen affordable housing complex in downtown Sacramento, Parker gets around with a walker and a cane. He also gets calls from “telephone reassurance” volunteers, who check in with him three times a week by phone.

“It kind of makes my day. I just enjoy the conversation.,” said Parker, divorced with three grown children who don’t live in Sacramento.

Ken Duckworth, NAMI’s medical director, recommends seeking out other people.

“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,” he said.

While holiday blues can be inevitable to some degree, they don’t have to be pervasive or permanent.