As a Presbyterian minister, Scott Dalgarno sees the glory of God in this holiday season, which his faith tells him marks the literal birth of hope. In this same season, however, he also sees nearly unbearable sorrow.
His father was told his cancer was terminal on Christmas Day many years ago. That memory surfaces every Christmas. Dalgarno knows perhaps better than most that amid the holiday lights and church services, the shopping sprees and gift exchanges, it's easy to forget that for some the holidays are bittersweet — and sometimes downright painful.
People may mourn the death of a parent, a child, a beloved friend. They may weep because a relationship or marriage died or pine because those ties were never born. Some children wake Christmas morning with a parent deployed overseas, absent and perhaps in peril. People may reel who are lonely or ill or face something daunting, like addiction, unemployment or the kind of natural disaster that just stripped thousands of Californians of their homes.
So on a Saturday evening in the middle of Advent, the doors of the fellowship hall at Dalgarno's Wasatch Presbyterian Church, like many others nationwide, were opened to those who sorrow for a "Blue Christmas" service, the lights dim to offer both comfort and privacy. As professional organist Kenneth Udy played soft carols and hymns, Dalgarno and pastoral associate Andrew Fleishman took turns praying for healing, for fond memories to surface and for mourners to find solace. "You give comfort and strength in ways that we don't even perceive," Fleishman said in one prayer.
Throughout the service, anyone who felt moved lit candles to remember those they miss or acknowledge special challenges.
Dalgarno calls Christmas "a multi-tinged holiday," a description with which Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California, agrees. She, too, has seen an uptick in melancholy amid the bright lights and cheerful gift shopping of the season. In the past week, she said, more of her clients have confided they feel sad, even as they try to put a good face on festivities for the sake of others.
In the many years Dalgarno has offered the service, it has never been well-attended, which doesn't faze him. "I think the fact the numbers are low reflect some people are a little embarrassed. Their wounds are not something they want to wear outside," he said. "They are quick to help others, but suffer their sorrows quietly." Adds Fleishman, "With any kind of grief, your community gets over the pain more quickly than you do."
Still, the sweetness of the service seems to help those who attend.
An attorney who asked that his name not be used attended this year's candle-lighting service to mark his first Christmas in 40 years "without the shield of alcohol." Sometimes the season's challenge comes in the form of change — and 10 months of sobriety is a big change, not just for him but for his family, he said. Even positive change can be challenging when it alters the way people are used to coping and interacting.
Because people deal with so many different and difficult things, Dalgarno likes to listen especially carefully this time of year to what people say, including what might seem like offhand remarks. Someone who talks about missing a grandmother "who was better to me than my mother" needs a chance to talk about their grandmother, to celebrate the relationship and mourn the loss. It is a tender time.
The holidays that stretch from late November into the new year span not just weeks, but faiths and cultural traditions. The season is likewise meaningful to all kinds of people, not just those who embrace religious meaning, Bahar said. People of all types and faith traditions connect to each other in what's deemed a time of goodwill. It may remind some folks of "why we are here or why we wish we weren't," so it's important to be honest with yourself about what you're feeling, she added — and others need to respect those feelings.
Fleishman echoes that. "I think it's a great thing to allow people to be exactly where they are."
Family and friends should invite someone who feels blue to participate in activities, but not push too hard, said Bahar. It's OK to let them feel a bit of melancholy, and there can be sweetness to their sadness that is both healthy and healing.
People pressure themselves to feel a magic and romance they believe is built into the season, but that just adds to stress, said Carrie Krawiec, executive director of the Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan. "The more pressure they put on themselves, the worse they feel."
Those coping with loss or feeling lonely and sad should give themselves a break and keep expectations realistic.
"It's OK to say 'no' and it's also OK to change your mind," she said. "If a single or sad or lonely person — not (always) the same thing — says no to a party invite because they are feeling worried about being sad or their single status, let them stay home without guilt or pressure. Don't force a person to come out who doesn't want to. And if they decline and then later have a change of heart, don't make a big deal about it. … Just show gratitude they decided to join the festivities."
That doesn't mean that it's healthy to park in front of the television and let go of life for extended periods of time. People can do things to help themselves feel better.
Bahar says it's healthy to "push yourself a little here." She likes the idea of going to a candle-lighting service, whether at a Blue Christmas gathering or other type of ritual, because it gives someone who sorrows a way to acknowledge pain and find comfort. A person could also erect a small tree in memory of someone or do something else that's "cozy and comforting" in the face of sadness, like making themself a nice dinner or buying special treats for a beloved pet. The holidays are a good time to go to events or watch favorite old movies. The goal is a healthy mix of caring for yourself and your feelings and interacting with others. It is also a great time to provide service for others.
Both laughter and music can help someone through the challenges of the season, she added.
Church can be very healing for those open to it, said Bahar. People can participate in different ways, including ways that create an interaction, like offering cookies or handing out programs.
Being active is balm for those who grieve or are depressed, said psychotherapist Fran Walfish of Beverly Hills, California, author of "The Self-Aware Parent" and a regular on "The Doctors," among other TV programs. "Loneliness is kicked in the butt when the person takes action doing anything," while stagnation and inactivity can lead to not just loneliness and depression, but physical maladies like blood clots, she said.
"Persistent depression harms the body," disrupting stress response, contributing to autonomic imbalance and potentially worsening several major risk factors for heart disease, Walfish added.
She also counsels that, amid sorrow, one ought to practice gratitude and give to others — a powerful antidote to loneliness, depression and the sorrow of loss. Gratitude is a balm that can flow both to and from the one who suffers.
Offering comfort without demanding people take it is an art, says Fleishman of Wasatch Presbyterian. Sometimes, people want others to feel better for their sake, not the sake of the one who suffers. It's OK — better, really — to let people come through to hope and joy at their own pace, he says.