Editor’s View: Are you feeling thankful, happy and jolly?
Following that, we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa – a time to be joyful. Greetings of “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” and “Happy Kwanzaa” will be heard everywhere.
But what if you aren’t feeling happy or merry?
In 2020, the holidays were the oddest I ever remember. My family celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas over Zoom. Who had ever heard of Zoom? There was no vaccine, so it wasn’t safe to get together, especially with our elderly family members or those with compromised immune systems.
Everyone hoped the holidays this year would be better.
From where I sit, I don’t see much of a change.
I asked my friend, Rev. Lori Esslinger, pastor of Old Zionsville United Church of Christ, to help sort out what people are feeling and brainstorm some ideas to help those who may be feeling not so happy or merry. She has a master’s degree in divinity and has extensive training in grief management.
The terms COVID fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder due to COVID-19 have been suggested as reasons why this holiday season may not be feeling the same as usual.
There are many families who have experienced loss (some COVID-19-related), some who are not working, so they may be financially challenged and potentially experiencing food insecurity, and some who are dealing with health issues. Some members of our community may be feeling lonely.
Two close members of my family circle are dealing with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. All who enter the circle need to be vaccinated because they have compromised immune systems. Those not vaccinated just can’t enter the circle.
“The issue of vaccination is a hot topic and a personal decision,” Esslinger said.
For families dealing with any of these issues or others, Esslinger said to take a self-assessment and acknowledge what you’re feeling.
“Realize this is painful,” she said. “It is not the way it used to be. Some issues have caused a lot of separation with family and friends.”
She said to consider who you might feel safe talking to – a dear friend, a pastor, a spouse or someone in the health profession. Someone who will understand and listen.
Esslinger said there are groups in the area designed especially for handling grief. What many are feeling is the loss of a person, a tradition or the way things used to be.
“Grief changes everything,” she said.
Family gatherings can sometimes be another trigger of stress.
“You don’t have to like your family. There is a love there – that is inherent in being in a family. Stress is also brought on at this time of the year in having to spend time with people who are so different,” Esslinger said. “Be merciful when you are together and acknowledge the kindness within your families. Recognize we are not all ‘Leave It To Beaver’ families.”
“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” Ken Duckworth, M.D., medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said. “That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.
“Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing things that make me miserable?’” Duckworth tells WebMD. “Think about the reasons.”
He suggests you draw up a list of reasons why you engage in these holiday traditions and then a list of reasons why you shouldn’t. Just making a simple pro and con list will remind you that you do have a choice.
Esslinger noted how very different families are today compared to long ago.
“Kids were not involved long ago, and now they are involved in adult situations where they maybe shouldn’t be,” she said.
Esslinger suggested seeking out a counselor or visiting with a church pastor to discuss concerns. Many churches have a Stephen Ministry, where church members undergo extensive training to handle a number of situations, including stress and grief.
Esslinger said it might be helpful to make a list of things that make you happy and bring you joy.
“Recognize that some situations just cannot be fixed,” she said. “The Pennsylvania Dutch philosophy of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ doesn’t always apply.”
The saying refers to being successful in your efforts by your own doing.
Dr. Tyler Wheeler, speaking for WebMD, provides some additional suggestions. Meet a close friend for a walk or make a call. Talking with someone you care about can help you feel supported and less stressed. Have a little dark chocolate. Now we’re talking! It has chemicals that can make more blood flow to your brain and may help you think more clearly. Play some music and sing along - your brain makes natural painkillers that can give your mood a boost. Find clips of your favorite television shows and laugh.
“This can help ease tension in your muscles, and when you breathe in quickly, your heart and lungs get a boost, too. Laughing also makes your brain release chemicals that help your body fight pain and infection,” the article notes.
Other suggestions include doing a good deed, hugging your pet, drinking water, exercising (after you have the chocolate!), going outside and getting some rest.
The Center for Humanistic Change has programs at senior centers and schools. Perhaps ask a member of the team to speak to your group about these type of issues.
Jordan United Church of Christ, 1837 Church Road, Allentown, offers a “Surviving the Holidays” seminar addressing the many emotions faced during the holidays, what to do about traditions and other coming changes, helpful tips for surviving social events and how to discover hope for your future. Upcoming sessions are scheduled 10:30 a.m.-noon Nov. 27 and Dec. 4. The website griefshare.org/holidays will offer additional sessions and locations.
Old Zionsville has held a successful, international, 13-week program addressing the loss of connectivity, family traditions, family member or friend. The next session begins in March 2022.
Esslinger said at this time of year where it gets darker earlier and it is colder, these situations prevent our older residents from going out and socializing.
Seasonal affective disorder occurs when there is less sunlight at certain times of the year. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, hopelessness and social withdrawal. There are treatments available for this.
These situations are not unusual, Esslinger said. If you believe you have SAD, see a doctor. Tell the doctor you are feeling down.
Many of our churches will hold Blue Christmas services to address the feelings of grief during the holidays.
If what you are feeling is hopelessness, please reach out to someone to help you through it. Or call the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255. Someone is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I don’t know if we will ever get back to the way holidays were before this divisiveness took hold of our country. We can, however, address how we are going to move forward.
If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. Many are feeling this uneasiness.
I hope you will find peace as you approach the holiday season and do what works best for you and your families.
Deb Galbraith edits the East Penn and Salisbury press weekly newspapers.