What do we do when nothing seems calm or bright, but when our worlds are turned upside-down and inside-out due to extreme mental illness, job loss, or the inability to conceive a child? How do we respond to this family time when we are facing divorce, have just lost our husband of 18 years, or have a child who is refusing to come home because he has cut us entirely out of his life?
These are challenging and difficult questions that every pastor and worship leader should ask themselves during this holiday season. You see, while the rest of the congregation might be enjoying the gingerbread cookies and hot cocoa, several others in your congregation may be asking themselves what’s the point. What’s the point of being happy when they feel there is nothing left? What’s the point of giving gifts when they can’t even afford a box of chocolates? What’s the point of attending all of these events when they don’t even have enough energy to get out of bed to go to the Christmas Eve service?
I am reluctant to give a hard and fast answer because the truth is depression is just about as complex as Christmas itself is. Depression can be caused by a variety of factors some of which are situational with the potential to resolve themselves eventually, and some of them are biological meaning the person may continue to struggle for the remainder of their lives (although in certain cases individuals can get better or at least have the effects of depression significantly lessened through counseling and/or medications). For many who do struggle with depression, Christmas is an especially difficult time because many of their usual supports may not be available. Their counselors may be taking a holiday, and they may worry that if they discuss what they are feeling with the friends and family they usually share with that they will be “ruining” the other person's Christmas. Many may even begin to feel down on themselves or berate themselves for feeling “upset for no reason” when Christmas is clearly a happy time.
Yet, although I cannot change the culture of what Christmas is (and in many ways wouldn’t want to), I believe there are a few things that we can all do in order to make Christmas more accessible and helpful for our loved ones who struggle with depression during this season:
1) Recognize that Christmas and winter in general are frequently the times when individuals become depressed. For some people, this may be the first time that their Grandma Edna, Uncle Frank, or nephew Chad won’t be at the Christmas table. Others may suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and naturally have their serotonin levels drop due to a lack of sunlight. Even just recognizing that depression during Christmas is common will help lessen your loved one’s anxiety and reassure them that what they are feeling is completely normal.
2) Be gentle with yourself or with your loved one about how many activities you/they want to partake in. For many people, when depression hits it can be incredibly hard to even muster up the strength to get out of bed, let alone to find that perfect dress or suit, to find matching shoes, and to round up your children in an attempt to get out of the house on time for the Christmas Eve service. If you feel that you don’t have the strength, know that it’s okay. Don’t force yourself to go to a million different Christmas activities. If you feel that you can only handle one, then go to one. If you feel like you don’t even have the strength for one, then don’t berate yourself for missing this year’s cantata.
3) Consider attending a Blue Christmas celebration. It might even be a beneficial thing to not only invite your loved one to this event, but to actually attend with them. This will help them to feel like you are standing in solidarity with them. There’s nothing to be ashamed of by choosing to go to these commemorations. In fact, in recent years they have been highly attended – some churches even being completely packed and thus advising attendants to arrive early in order to find seats.
4) Stress that Christmas is about the fellowship, not about the gifts. If your loved one is feeling the strain of financial pressure and cannot see how they could possibly get you a gift, reassure them that that is okay. In fact, it might even be a better option to simply say that there will be no gifts given this year. This alleviates the pressure. If you are of a tradition that insists upon gift giving, consider giving something homemade like a plate of cookies or doing a “white elephant gift exchange” (objects that are $5 or less, second hand, or homemade).
5) Consider taking your loved-one’s children out for special activities during this Christmas season. Many individuals who suffer from depression may feel badly that their children aren’t able to participate in certain activities because their Mom or Dad doesn’t feel well enough to drive them or attend with them. You can really help alleviate the stress for your loved one by asking if you can pick up their son or daughter and take them to your house for a Christmas cooking baking day or a gingerbread house competition. Perhaps, you could even take both your kids and their kids out for skating, tobogganing, or have popcorn and snacks at your house while you watch a favourite family Christmas video or decorate the tree. The parent suffering from depression may really appreciate this respite and plus it will be fun for everyone :). If the parent asks what you want in return, assure them that you don’t expect anything back. Perhaps if the kids are friends you could even say that your children just wanted to have a play date with theirs.
6) If you’re struggling with depression and find that you don’t have the strength to put on a giant Christmas dinner, consider delegating and enlisting the help of others. Perhaps your son or daughter could act as the host for this year and suggest that others in the family bring desserts, salads, and other goodies. This will help alleviate the stress on the host with depression from having to find the energy to prepare everything him/herself plus the pressure of cleaning the entire house.
7) Lastly, let your loved one know that they aren’t being a burden. If they need to talk to you, let them know that it won’t be ruining your Christmas. Try to be there for them as much as possible during this time.
These are only a few suggestions, but I believe that if we all pitch in a little bit we can help alleviate the holiday stress for many individuals who suffer from depression. After all, Jesus’s birth is not foremost about celebration (although that is a large part), it’s about the hope and healing that He has brought to the world.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a Field Associate for ADNet. This post first appeared on our blog in December 2013.