It’s not unusual to have an increase in the number of people experiencing some form of depression during the holiday season, said Stephanie Wick, a Kansas State University instructor in family studies and human services and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
In addition to the holidays, the winter days are shorter, the weather is colder, and people spend more time indoors — all of which can contribute to a difficult time of year. The holidays also are perceived as a joyful time filled with family, tradition, making memories and enjoying each other’s company, Wick said.
“When you’ve lost a loved one and you’re coming up on the holiday season, there’s a giant void,” Wick said. “It’s a reminder that all these other families are celebrating this time together and enjoying their time together, but we’ve lost this person. We can’t enjoy this time because we’re not complete, we’re not whole.”
Wick says there are ways for people grieving, along with their friends and relatives, to face the holidays during a difficult time. Every person goes through grief differently, Wick said, and will approach the holidays in diverse ways.
“I think one of the most important things to do as an outsider watching a person who is grieving is to respect their healing process,” Wick said. “If they decide they don’t want to put up a Christmas tree, have a meal or open presents, as an outsider it’s important to respect that because it’s necessary for that person or that family’s process of trying to get through this holiday season.”
Sometimes simply engaging in conversations about the person who died can help the grieving process, if the grieving person is willing to talk. Telling funny stories or sharing memories can be a way to keep the person’s memory alive.
But there are certain behaviors a grieving person can exhibit that might be signals for concern, Wick said. Such behaviors can include any indication of major depression with no effort to reach out for help; refusing any help that is offered; or any type of suicidal thoughts or plans.
After someone has died it can be very difficult for a family to resume old holiday traditions. Wick suggests creating new traditions instead of trying to continue old ones during a time of grief.
“Families can do something they haven’t done before or go somewhere else for the holidays,” Wick said. “It’s a way of marking the new phase, but also preserving the old traditions and the memory of those traditions with the person who has died.”
It’s important to remember that the grieving process takes time, Wick said.
“It gets easier with time,” she said. “The first holiday is the hardest. For many people it’s a process of surviving, just getting through one holiday at a time.”