Holidays aren't always happy for all

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Last year, Christmas wasn't very joyful for the Rev. Tammy Yeager of Peters.

She spent most of that holiday season mired in grief from the death of her daughter's fiance, who died in August 2012 while kayaking in Washington state.

This year, she said, coping with the lingering emotions is still difficult, but her grief is "much softer and lighter."

While many will spend the coming weeks decking the halls, many others will find themselves, like Rev. Yeager, hosting the unwelcome guests of grief, loss or the holiday blues.

"The holidays are just so difficult for someone who's grieving a loss," said Rev. Yeager, associate pastor for congregational care at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair.

"There's an expectation for you to be happy, but it's impossible for some people and exhausting for others to try to put on that mask of happiness. You never get over the loss, you just get through it," she said.

Westminster Presbyterian Church held its annual "Christmas Remembrance: A Service of Comfort and Hope" on Dec. 18 in Galbreath Chapel at the church at 2040 Washington Road. It's designed to support those coping with the death of a loved one, but in past years, people suffering other losses have attended and found comfort as well, Rev. Yeager said. For more information on the service, go to www.westminster-church.org or call 412-835-6630.

Grief is the emotional reaction to the loss of a loved one, said Mark Miller, medical director of the Late Life Depression Center at UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Everyone grieves in an individual way, and there is no right or wrong way nor does grief have a set timeline.

"People who have lost someone they care about look forward to the holidays with trepidation. They think along the lines of, 'I'm going to be alone' or 'I hate the holidays because my husband died during that time.' The holidays are powerful reminders," he said.

Clinical nurse specialist Sue Wesner, of Western Psychiatric, said the holidays can create anxiety for the bereaved because their emotions are pretty much out of their control. Grief resembles a roller coaster ride with intense lows and highs, she said.

Also, most people don't understand how much grief impacts a person's concentration, energy level, interest and memory, she said. They expect the griever to be in the state of mind they were in before the loss, which won't be the case.

People can grieve losses unrelated to death, too, Ms. Wesner said. It's common to grieve the loss of health, youth, a limb or a breast, a job, home, relationship or anything else that holds meaning.

The emotions of grief -- sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger and guilt -- can be the same whether the grief is caused by death or not, although intensity may markedly vary, she said. The key difference is "an ability to take action" to change the situation: "You can take steps to find another job, but when someone dies you can only cope while grief runs its course," Ms. Wesner said.

The Rev. Cynthia Schneider, minister of congregational care at Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, said most people have a family holiday tradition they experienced as a child that they want to re-create every year.

"If something like a loss comes and takes part of that away, we don't know how to deal with it. We have to learn to reconstruct our life and start new traditions, and that's not easy," she said.

Christ Church has year-round ministries that support people coping with life changes such as grief, depression, cancer and recovery, she added. Information on the ministries is available at www.christumc.net.

It's OK to not celebrate at all, Ms. Wesner said.

"If you don't want to put up a Christmas tree, don't. It doesn't mean it will be that way next year," she said.

Some people suffer from the "holiday blues"-- a lay term generally describing temporary seasonal feelings of sadness, hopelessness or stress. Such feelings have biological and emotional causes and can intensify if coupled with grief, Dr. Miller said.

Seasonal affective disorder, a mood change induced by the loss of sunlight during winter months, can create a "physical energy crisis" characterized by low energy and decreased activity in many people and exacerbate sadness, he said. It's linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain.

Emotional triggers for the blues can include separation from family members -- emotional or geographic -- loneliness, the inability to get home for the holidays, financial hardship, or concern about family members who abuse alcohol or drugs, he said.

Here are some tips from the professionals to cope with the holidays:

• Keep it simple. Rethink holiday rituals such as baking all night.

• Seek the counsel of a good listener -- a friend, relative, clergy or therapist.

• Take care of yourself with good nutrition, enough rest and moderate activity.

• Focus on the real meaning of Christmas; it leads to hope.

• Give yourself permission to cry. Go behind closed doors or let loose with a friend.

• Don't allow yourself to be pressured into attending get-togethers. Rehearse: "Thanks, but I'm not up to it right now."

• Be willing to contact community support resources if needed, such as: UPMC's 24-hour re:solve Crisis Network at 1-888-796-8226; Good Grief Center for Bereavement Support at 412-224-4700 or www.goodgriefcenter.com; Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute at 412-661-1239 or www.ppi-online.org); or a church.

Correction (posted Dec. 23, 2013) -- the earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Westminster Presbyterian Church will hold its annual "Christmas Remembrance: A Service of Comfort and Hope" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Galbreath Chapel at the church at 2040 Washington Road. Instead, it should have said that Westminster Presbyterian Church held its annual "Christmas Remembrance: A Service of Comfort and Hope" on Dec. 18.


Kathy Samudovsky, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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