To the moms living with depression at Christmas, I see you. Maybe you’re grieving right now. Maybe you just aren’t feeling like yourself this year, or maybe you’ve had depression for as long as you can remember. Either way, I see you. I know what it feels like to grieve and feel depressed through the Christmas season.
I’ve had many, many horrible loses right around Christmas. We discovered my niece had cancer right around Christmas. I had one last Christmas with my dad two months before he died. I lost our first child just before Christmas. There was the year my brother-in-law was stationed in Iraq, and years later, I spent two consecutive Christmases decorating a hospital room and holding hands with my nephew praying through his mysterious illness that he was going to be OK. (Thankfully, he was).
Too often we believe we can’t feel anything other than joy and happiness through the Christmas season. As if our only job is to exude happiness through our fingertips and make magic for those around us. If you are a mom, you are the keeper of the magic and everyone looks to you for the fun, the joy, the perfect hot coca after the snow, the fresh new jammies on Christmas morning. Without those things it wouldn’t feel like Christmas to them. But to you, it all feels like work and exhaustion.
Full disclosure: I am not clinically depressed, but I have lived with depression during the holidays and I feel like I can closely relate. The year I lost our baby, was the absolute worst. I stuffed that depression down so deep that when it finally hit, I couldn’t get out of bed. I went to work in a fog and came home to get into my bed and stayed there all night. Life was a hazy blur as I raced through the motions so the day would just be over. One night my husband returned home from work to find me in my pajamas cooking dinner and asked, “are you finally getting out of bed now?” and I was so angry, I threw a raw chicken at him. That’s when I knew it was time to face the grief I felt and maybe learn to express it in more productive ways. (For the record, we laugh at that night now, 13 years later).
The brain fog and mental fatigue alone make it hard to really connect to anything else around you, including the sparkly lights and the kid’s enjoyment while baking cookies together. It all feels like too much and not enough all at the same time. And then we pile on the guilt for not enjoying it and not giving enough to our kids. (Believe me, you are enough).
There is so much pressure to make things perfect the entire month of December. But I want to normalize that it’s OK to have other feelings that aren’t festive or Merry. It is possible to feel pain in your heart and carry sadness around with you. It’s also OK to talk about those feelings. People will seem dismissive with their trite, “look on the bright side” “well at least you have other kids” or “it’s Christmas, everything is happy at Christmas.” Those are the words of someone who doesn’t know how to help. They may be afraid of your pain. They may be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Or they may be clueless what it feels like to be missing pieces of themselves. Running into those phrases can make someone with depression want to retreat and never mention it again, or feel ashamed of not being as happy as everyone else. But talking about it with someone who can relate, or has felt grief, is the best way to get through this. We can feel like talking about our sadness will make other people sad, but it won’t. Holding it in and denying that it exists makes it harder for other feelings to get in, including joy and happiness.
I see how hard you are working to keep it all bottled up inside like nothing is wrong, but believe me, you need to find your safe space before you find yourself hurling poultry during an out of body experience. Talking about your pain, your sadness, and the loved ones you miss should be completely acceptable even at Christmas.
This year the pandemic restrictions that keep us from being with people and parties that make us feel less alone, also makes it harder to reach out or use our regular coping mechanisms. It is elevating the level of pain we can normally feel in control of. I too am feeling the grief more deeply than in the past.
The other day, I was simply preparing our tree for decorating and listening to Christmas carols. I love caroling. In fact, for several years my friend coordinated a caroling event at a local nursing home and I looked forward to that tradition every year. As I was belting out “The First Noelle,” I suddenly burst in to tears when I realized that tradition is gone and so is my friend. She died almost two years ago. All I could remember was the last Christmas we caroled together. And as I began grieving for her, it opened the flood gates for all the grief I normally feel at Christmas, but keep myself too busy to feel. Crying did feel better. But talking to a friend who understands grief and heartache made it easier for me to process and make room for feelings of gratitude. Just knowing I wasn’t alone in feeling this way and hearing kind words, “I know how you feel” “I know this is so hard” “I am sending you hugs” felt like band aids to my broken heart. My friend’s compassion and understanding were the healing salve I needed to carry on. My grief will continue no matter what, but knowing I could express it without judgement makes it easier to cope with it.
I don’t need to be you or have suffered the same exact losses to know that grief any time of year is hard, but during the holidays when everyone else is stacking their happiness in colorful packages, depression can feel out of place. And I also know that grief and sadness, depression and loss can co-exist alongside feelings of joy. I hope you will reach out to those around you who can share in this with you. If you don’t have that kind of support in your home, I hope you can find it in a support group or a therapist’s office. More than anything, I hope you know you’re allowed to have more than one feeling during the holidays.
Roxanne Ferber is a twin mom, writer and owner of The Whatever Mom blog. You can find more of her messy motherhood stories on Facebook.