Although Christmas is traditionally a time of fellowship and joy, for many the festive season represents a time of loneliness and misery, frustrated by painful memories.
For people on their own, Christmas can be the loneliest time of the year and a period to be dreaded, especially if it is the first holiday after the death of a loved one. For others, Christmas may be a melancholic reminder of happier times that may have passed. According to Wendy Walters, a social worker at the University of Alabama’s Hospice program, “A loss is felt even more acutely at this time of year because the person’s absence is so conspicuous at family gatherings, and people who are grieving often find it difficult to allow themselves to enjoy the festive season”. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Christmas may be a time of family hell for some people, as they are forced to entertain difficult family members, or make polite conversation with people who are not well tolerated.
In order to cope with the stresses and difficult emotions of Christmas, some people make merry by overindulging in alcohol, with the result that depression is often aggravated and becomes more pronounced.
In order to combat feelings of loss, Walters suggests making changes to usual Christmas rituals : “The biggest trap well-meaning families and friends fall into is to pretend that things will be just the same as they have always been – it is only through doing something different that the loss can be properly acknowledged”. Rearranging the seating around the Christmas table or opening gifts on Christmas eve instead of Christmas day can help ease the pain. It is also important to spend time with people who understand the suffering and loneliness, and will not mind emotions that are unpredictable. Says Walters : “To move through grief, you must be willing to share it”.
Remember that despite the euphoria, Christmas does come to an end – there are officially only 12 days of Christmas, and the trauma of the season can be minimised if activities are carefully planned. If you are suffering from loneliness, enquire ahead of time as to whether there will be any gatherings in your neighbourhood – if so, join in the festivities. If your biggest fear is having to be in the company of people you are not particularly partial to, try to minimize your anxiety by explaining ahead of time that you will be leaving early. If family usually descend on you for too long, plan to go away immediately after Christmas.
Television and Radio usually broadcast their best programs over the festive season – relax and make the most of what is on offer. It is also important to remember that overspending on gifts and entertainment causes stress and anxiety. Do not spend more than you have budgeted for.
The Depression and Anxiety Support Group offers a telephonic counselling and referral service to assist those suffering from loneliness and depression. Their offices are open from 8am to 7pm, and will be open on Christmas.