Seasonal Depression: Celebrating the Holidays After Loss

It’s that time of year again.  Days are getting shorter, and mornings are downright chilly.  Christmas gear is beginning its annual retail take-over, and “pumpkin spice” everything is unavoidable.  So many memories are formed around the holiday season, from visits to pumpkin patches to writing letters to Santa.  For most of us, the holidays are a joyous occasion. For many, though, this time of year can be extremely painful. Seasonal Depression affects up to 20% of North Americans. So what is Seasonal Depression, and what can you do to manage its symptoms?

Seasonal Depression (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or "SAD") is a mood disorder brought on or heightened by the fall and winter seasons. Physical symptoms vary widely, and can include feelings of loneliness, or sadness, or lacking in energy, or motivation.  The emotional toll of SAD can tend to far outweigh the physical, however. Difficulty getting up in the morning, oversleeping, over or under-eating, increased use or dependence on substances or alcohol, lack of concentration, and social withdrawl are all common signs of SAD.    

Many people become afflicted with SAD when grieving the loss of a loved one, even if a loved one’s passing didn’t occur around the holidays.  Rituals, traditions, and social gatherings seem to magnify the emptiness left by loss, making it almost palpable. And then there are the mementos… That one picture, of you sitting on Grampa’s lap in your Halloween costume as he pretended to not recognize you, the hand-made apron that meant you were Grandma’s “Special Helper” in the kitchen at Thanksgiving… Each holiday is a veritable minefield of treasured (and potentially painful) memories.    


So how do you cope with feelings of grief, that can materialize instantly, violently, out of something as benign as a stuffing recipe?  There are many ways to combat the physical symptoms of SAD. Do your best to keep active. Seek out the sunlight when you have the opportunity.  Eat as healthfully as possible. Also, keep in mind that a chemical approach to coping is a band-aid and not a solution, which can quickly grow into a dependency.

Awhile back I read an article in which the writer personified grief as a monster, which is commonly hidden from or ignored completely.  Understanding SAD, and learning how to engage, and express your personal grief monster can be very difficult. By identifying your grief, you immediately begin to dissipate its power over you.  

There are several things to keep in mind when dealing with your grief monster.  First, realize that you cannot make it to go away. You cannot lock it in a closet.  You cannot control when or where it wants to show up. It is important to address your grief as it comes.  Acknowledging it is an imperative step in the healing process. Also, accept your boundaries, and do not feel guilty about enforcing them.  This means, if is too painful for you, DON’T DO IT. Period. You, and you alone are responsible for making the decisions that will honor the memories you hold dear, while also maintaining your own peace and sanity.  Some traditions you may choose to carry on, where others may be better left in the past.

Another way to keep the grief monster at bay is to do your best to connect with others.  Talking about your loved ones keeps their spirit alive. Say their name. Share your memories.  Celebrate the time you were able to spend with them. Knowing you are not alone in your grief can be incredibly comforting.  If your grief monster seems to big to bare alone, talk to someone. If you do not feel comfortable sharing your burden with friends or family, you still have options.  Grief counselors, and grief support groups are an excellent way to connect with people who understand, because they are living through it too. If you are unable to leave the house, reach out to a grief hotline.

Finally, it’s important to allow yourself the latitude to make day-to-day decisions based on your emotional capabilities that day.  Don’t be bullied by anyone else’s holiday agenda. Above all, honor yourself and your needs through this challenging season.


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