When a red and green holiday looks blue
Coping with grief and loss during the holidays
FINGER LAKES--Not everyone feels merry and bright at this time of year. The mindset of gaiety and excited anticipation that begins for so many before the Thanksgiving turkey and lasts until just after the New Year's champagne may be felt by many others as dread.
"Holidays are an emotional time," notes Father Michael Hartney of St. James Episcopal Church in Watkins Glen. "People who have experienced an emotion loss any time during the year, whether it's separation, even people moving away, divorce, death, illness, being away from home... everybody's happy and singing Christmas carols and they don't feel like that."
"The holidays can make people feel blue very quickly if they've lost a loved one, a beloved pet, if they've had physical challenges, changes to their health or the loss of a job," says the Rev. Ellen Donnan, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church. She's leading a special "Blue Christmas" service Thursday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at the church at 31 Main St., Dundee. All are welcome - not only those who feel sad right now, but also those who want to support them.
"Not everyone has a 'Ho-Ho-Ho' Christmas," Donnan says. "How do you pay for Santa gifts if you can't pay the rent? And the first Christmas season without a loved one - you can't celebrate the same way you always have." The service is timed for the beginning of the season so those who feel sad will know there's someone to turn to if they're having a hard time," she explains.
Like everyone sooner or later, Donnan weathered some sad holidays when she experienced a divorce and then the death of her beloved mother. "Those are the two blue Christmases that stand out in my life," she recalls.
"The world is filled with good times and bad times. You're not always going to have a happy life. But it's how we face those difficulties and how others reach out to us that help us get through them and help us appreciate holiday times when we are happy and merry. I watch the Hallmark movies and you always know everything is going to turn out happy. That's a great illusion but it's not reality."
Donnan's service draws people from Penn Yan and Watkins Glen as well as those who usually worship in Dundee. During the service, those who wish to can share their stories. Sometimes each of those attending is invited to write the name of the person they miss on a small stone which is placed on the altar during the service and taken home afterwards. "Often people who've been through hard times and gotten on the other side will offer suggestions," she notes. The service lasts about half an hour and is followed by light refreshments.
A pastor in one of the close-knit rural communities says he tried a Blue Christmas service but the response was not enthusiastic, with many people holding their sadness fiercely private. "People in this community tend to not want to complain," he says. "They'd see it as complaining."
Not everyone having a miserable holiday season will say so. Often those who feel sad want to be alone with their grief. "Don't try to force someone to have a happy Christmas," Donnan says. "Acknowledge their feelings, listen to the person, and if you know them well, invite them to attend some of the holiday season with you." For those who can't celebrate the same way as previous years, Donnan often recommends doing something completely different to ease the transition into a new tradition.
"It's not hard to identify who those persons are," Hartney says, pointing out that all holidays, even birthdays and anniversaries, are difficult for those in grief, and as the holidays approach, things can feel worse. "It's making sure people are staying in contact with their friends and not dropping out," he points out. "People may say, 'Since my husband/wife/child died, no one calls.' It's keeping in touch and being a good listener, and not being afraid that it's not all happy. For a lot of people there's great sadness and great fear this is all there is. We're on a journey and we're in the middle of it."
"It's one of my favorite services of the year," Donnan says positively of the Blue Christmas service. "I've been through blue Christmases and I think I can give hope -- next year might be better."
"I'm in the business of proclaiming hope and salvation and that life has ups and downs. I find hope in my faith," Hartney says. "I have to keep saying to people, it's what makes understanding loss and death somehow possible... That's what I do what I do."