Lights are twinkling. Bells are jingling. Everyone is filled with glee for the holidays.
But are they?
That’s just not the case for everyone, a reality for many that needs to be acknowledged and embraced, said McHenry County religious leaders and mental health experts.
“The holidays can be a really painful time” for those dealing with the loss of a loved one or struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation, heartbreak or financial instability, said the Rev. Emily Davis, minister at First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake.
For people experiencing that pain, the church will host its annual Blue Christmas service at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, where people “are invited to bring their whole truth.”
“The Blue Christmas service is an intentional pause from all the flash and distraction, and sometimes the overbearing joy of the holiday season,” Davis said. “[It is] a time for folks to acknowledge to themselves and others that, yes, even in this time, we have broken hearts. Even in this season, we are lonely, we feel sadness and pain.”
Rachel Boldman, director of student engagement and support at McHenry County College, said it is important that people acknowledge that for them this is not “necessarily a happy time and to know that it is OK.”
“The holidays can bring up a lot of memories that can be very positive, but the holidays can also bring up grief of loved ones who have passed or experiences that maybe were not so happy,” said Boldman, who also is a licensed clinical professional counselor.
The holidays can make people who are hurting feel alienated and lonely when surrounded by others who are happy and joyful. But, to know that it is common this time of year for people to be struggling can be “really helpful as people try to navigate what is best for them,” she said.
The Rev. Mark Buetow, pastor at Zion Lutheran Church and School in McHenry, said at his church members often reach out to those who may be having a hard time during the holidays.
“I suppose, a great deal of the struggle during the holidays comes from a person feeling alone,” he said. “They have experienced loss or grief. They are separated from families or bereaving loved ones.”
Buetow suggests people attend Christmas services – where there are no expectations, conditions or requirements – and remember that the story of Christmas is about God making us all a part of his family and is a promise that “no one will ever be truly alone.”
Davis said her congregation also leans on each other and the meaning of the holidays, spending time in community. This is especially needed this year, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when “collectively, we have a lot of unprocessed grief and unprocessed trauma.”
Boldman said it’s good that people be aware of others in their lives who are struggling and to check in with those experiencing a loss, depression, anxiety or some other hardship.
“Just giving them a call and say, ‘Hi, how are you? I’m thinking of you,’ acknowledging with them that it is OK that it may not be a happy time for them, and for yourself, too, that it is OK,” Boldman said.
Davis said people need to tell themselves – and share with others – how hurt they really are by the life-altering events that happened as a result of the pandemic. For many, the pandemic changed lives dramatically and although they likely cannot recover what was lost, “there is hope for the future.”
“We just have to forge a new path forward with our new selves now that the world has opened back up to us,” Davis said.
“We turn to God, lean on the Christian season of Advent,” she said. “At its deepest core, this is a season of waiting and longing and weeping, and [when] we say we want a different world.”
Buetow suggests to those struggling find peace and comfort in the calm illumination of the season and comfort in knowing “that the peace Christ brings is bigger than the traumatic and terrible things that often seem to overwhelm us.”
“Despite the chaos this time of year, there is something that stands out consistently year to year – the lights,” Buetow said. “In the darkest time of the year, the presence and beauty of so many extra lights helps to center our thoughts on Jesus, the Light of the World, and perhaps recover some calm and peace.”
People need to practice self-care, especially during the holidays, Boldman said.
She sees students at the college dealing with loads of stress this time of year. This is due not only to the pressures of the holidays, but final exams. She considers the students she is seeing in crisis “a reflection of our community.”
“Self-care is a buzzword now, but self-care isn’t all about having spa days or bubble baths,” Boldman said. “Sometimes, it can just be getting enough sleep, scheduling time to be alone and not doing all the things you are invited to, taking a break from family, setting boundaries. Boundaries are a form of self-care that are an under acknowledged and underappreciated form of protecting yourself in a healthy way.”
Boldman recommends taking a break from social media and putting a stop to the comparisons to other people’s lives posted on social media. She said to call a trusted, supportive friend when the pressures become too much and taking time to be alone in the stillness, but being careful not to become isolated.
Self-care can also be in simple movement, taking a walk outside when the weather is nice or even when it’s not so nice. She also recommends meditation and mindfulness.
“Movement in general can be really helpful. It increases the endorphins running through our bodies and helps us process thoughts and feelings,” she said.
Geri Condon, a member of the McHenry County Suicide Prevention Task Force who also has her own private practice, Capture Your Path in Ringwood, knows what it’s like to enter the holiday missing someone.
Her mother died in October 2021. To ease her pain some and keep her mom part of the holidays, this year she is sharing her mom’s cookie recipes and passing down the tradition of making cookies to her daughter.
“We are missing nanna, but she will be here with us in spirit,” Condon said.
She suggests to those who are grieving the passing of a loved one to do the same, “incorporate new traditions” that honor and reflect the person they lost.
She also suggested during the next few weeks and on the holidays themselves to be realistic about what can be managed and what to expect.
She cautions against overspending and suggests making a budget and “sticking to it.” She also recommends homemade gifts, creative gifts, projects that can be created as a family or an “experience” as a family in lieu of giving material gifts.
“We get so focused on the presentation that we forget it’s about the people,” Condon said. “We think, ‘Oh, we have to have our house decorated. We have to have all the right foods.’ All the business of putting it all together, that is not what is important. It should be about being with people, uniting and being present.”