When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

child in a Santa hat looking out a rain-streaked window
A gray Christmas. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

This year the holidays promise to be particularly tough for a lot of people. But they are survivable.

In addition to political upheaval, fires, and storms, 2020 brought us a pandemic, and we’re already seeing cases surge from Thanksgiving. The same supportive gatherings with friends and family that help stave off the blues this time of year are the ones we are being told to avoid—this after months of isolation. What are we supposed to do?

Before I go any further, let me just say: If you are thinking of suicide — even if it’s speculation, like “I wonder what would happen if I drove into that overpass support?” — get help. You are worth it! If you don’t know where to start, here are a couple of suggestions: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Depression and Suicide Resources: My Jewish Learning. There are many, many more.

Beyond the importance of seeking clinical help when necessary, there are many things we can do to help ourselves and each other during these chaotic times.

Reduce or remove expectations

Between commercials, movies, and our own selective memories, we tend to have unrealistic expectations of what the holidays should look like. Whether it’s Grandma leading the Hanukkah prayers while the smell of latkes floats in the background, or a Christmas tree appearing fully decorated overnight above a mountain of presents, our expectations grow by unrealistic proportions. This year is a great time to reduce our expectations and adjust our customs to more manageable levels.

My husband and I have decided on no presents this year. Things are too tight, and we don’t need stuff. I like the Dutch tradition of doing presents on Sinta Klaas day (Dec. 6) instead of Christmas, anyway. And while the tree is up with lights, it has no ornaments. It may stay that way.

A ham, a turkey, five sides and three desserts really aren’t necessary for four people, let alone two! Keep it simple, and instead of spending all that time in the kitchen, spend it talking to the ones you love. (And donate the extra money you saved to someone who really needs it. The Salvation Army, for example, has more mouths to feed than ever, and fewer donations to accomplish that task.)

You say you can’t go to Grandma’s house or see Uncle Frank? Zoom them, or Facetime, or even (gasp) call them on the telephone! Let’s bring back the art of conversation.


One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is to listen to them — really listen. When you ask someone how they are, do you hear the answer? Most will say, “I’m fine,” and move on. But does their expression match the answer? Did they hesitate that split second, revealing that they wanted to answer differently? It may or may not be a good time right then to follow-up, but a simple, “Let’s go for coffee after this,” might be all they need to know that someone actually cares. No one expects you to be a therapist, but how many times have you felt better after getting something off your chest?

And ask to hear people’s stories. How did your parents or grandparent meet? What was their first job like? What was the funniest thing that happened to them when they were a teenager?

A special note on loss

Many people are grieving this year. Loss of a loved one is particularly hard that first Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to miss them. One of the best ways to honor them is to tell their stories to one another. Set up a recorder or use your phone or computer, and let people talk about the missing one. We each have our own encounters with them from our own viewpoint, and in sharing memories this way, we gain a fuller appreciation of the person gone and the unique ways they touched each of our lives.

If you are visiting with someone grieving, invite them to share some stories with you. You will both benefit.

Be open to sharing of yourself

I don’t mean you should railroad the conversation with your own story, unless you are asked to. Rather, if you have been through depression, loss, or other dark times, simply say, “I’ve been through something similar. I think I understand,” and let it be. If they want to know more about how you dealt with it, they will ask.

Be wary of “fixit” schemes

As soon as you reveal that you (or someone close to you) is struggling, whether from loss, the holiday blahs, or full-on depression, the remedies will come out of the woodwork. Prescriptions, therapy, step programs, supplements, wellness escapes, prayers — these all have their place. But there is no one solution that works for all, and it may take a combination with a lot of trial and error.

A lit menorah at Hanukkah
We all need light. Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

For those who need medication, remember that different medicines affect people differently. Similarly, you may have to try several counselors or therapists before you find someone with whom you are comfortable. Price tag means nothing here. A free or discounted telephone or online service can be better than the pricey psychiatrist your Aunt Jean namedrops all the time.

If you are low on certain nutrients, supplements can help if you can’t get those nutrients naturally. Unfortunately, most supplements like vitamins, minerals, and herbs aren’t regulated by the FDA. Be a savvy shopper.

That also applies to many of the self-help programs out there. “Just do XYZ, and you’ll be happy for the rest of your life!” they proclaim. If you buy their book, use their products, etc. There are helpful resources out there, but they are just one of many arrows in your quiver. When I see something being heavily promoted, I tend to walk away; I want someone more interested in me than my money.

Fixit schemes come clothed in the spiritual, too. One of my pet peeves is, “If only you prayed more,” or harder, or in a certain way. No one knows what’s happening between me and God. Ditto for anyone else. Even worse are the wolves who offer to pray for you if you give them X amount of money.

A reminder here: be careful about offering your own “fixit” to someone else!

Be non-judgmental

Nothing shuts down communication faster than judgment. “How could you say that?” or “You did what?” cuts you off from that person and guarantees they will never speak anything of substance to you again. When someone drops a bombshell on you, remember that they are already down and are seeking help. They certainly have beaten themselves up about it more than you ever could. They need your quiet acceptance. If you can’t do that, at least reserve judgement. You have not walked in their shoes to understand the choices they’ve made. It’s not like you are perfect, either. (And if you’re the seeker, look elsewhere. You don’t deserve their judgment.)

A word to my religious friends

Most of the major world religions consider suicide a sin of some kind. Theologically and culturally, we attach great shame to suicide — and by extension, any mental illness, including depression — to the end that the last place people find help is at their place of worship. (An excellent article describing one such incident is here.)

My purpose here is not to debate theology but to issue a pastoral call, per se. For congregations of all kinds and sizes, consider the question: How can we discuss suicide and mental illness in a manner that acknowledges their presence without automatic shame? After all, we’ve been learning to deal with things like adultery and divorce, theft, greed, addiction, and the like. The one place where people should be able to find help has become the last one where they find it. Isn’t prevention better than wading through the aftermath?

Remember the Front Line Workers

Finally, one group that may be more susceptible to mental illness this winter than any other is that of Front Line workers. Doctors, nurses, techs, EMTs and ambulance workers are dropping like flies, both to the COVID-19 virus and to burnout. Many haven’t seen their own families in months in the effort to protect them while trying to treat others. Do you know someone in that group? Thank them. Do you know someone in their family? Thank them for their sacrifice.

Contact your local hospital and find out if they have a program to get encouragement cards to their staff. If so, join in. If not, get one started. This type of activity can be especially helpful if you, yourself, are feeling helpless with all that is going on around you. Making a card (or buying one), or writing a letter, or drawing a picture is something anyone can do, whether they are three or ninety-three years old.

Conclusion — Community

These are the kinds of things that bring about true community. It’s not all about the kind of music you like, or the clothes you wear, your religion, or even your politics — hard to swallow, I know. Community comes from listening, providing a shoulder to lean or cry on (even when it’s virtual), and showing someone you care, even if all you can do is nod.

These seemingly small, trivial things are what give us each the backbone to carry on when we think our strength is gone. Knowing that one person cares can make the difference.

Woman with arm around girl as both wear Santa hats and look at Christmas tree.
Community is strengthened one hug at a time. Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

I challenge you to be that someone: the listener; the virtual hugger; the quiet, non-judgmental sounding board; the person who says, “I’ll walk with you through this.” You don’t have to be perfect — you aren’t, so be real about it. Sometimes the most effective guides are those struggling at the same time. That’s right, struggling, depressed — even suicidal — people can help others. (One more reason to stick around.)

We are in this together, so let’s work through it together. We are all beggars helping other beggars to find bread, as the saying goes. Be kind to yourself as well as others.

Grace, Peace, and Hugs to You All!

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