I was at the supermarket the other morning when I had a moment. I was underslept, overcoffeed and had managed to insert my loonie into a defective, rickety cart. Also – this is relevant – I had already read much of the newspaper, including some difficult stories therein.
Waiting (forever) at the deli counter, listening to an onslaught of Christmas carols, I was suddenly struck – overwhelmed, really – with a terrible thought: What would it be like to be standing here, subjected to this cheery holiday music, if you were someone whose daughter, mother, auntie, wife – friend – was murdered or missing? Snatched from the Highway of Tears or somewhere else out there in the cold, dark night, never to reappear? And as I stood there, I thought that for someone suffering such a loss, even the simplest of tasks – heading to the store for some cheese or salami, for instance – would require such bravery at this time of year, with the blanket of holiday cheer all around, reminding you of your terrible loss one I'll Be Home for Christmas at a time.
For many of us, Christmas is twinkly lights, stuffed stockings, excited children, well-appointed gingerbread houses. It's a time for gathering by warm fires with loved ones, sending out annual newsletters full of family news and unwrapping thoughtful gifts that have been lying in wait under aromatic trees selected from snowy lots during festive, red-cheeked outings. Happy, merry, jolly. So goes the narrative.
But gosh, this can be a nasty time of year. For every two-carat marriage proposal and harmonious turkey dinner depicted with each click of the remote, there are all kinds of real-life people dealing with real-life problems, which can feel much more acute over the holidays.
Maybe this is your first Christmas after the death of a loved one. Maybe you're going through a divorce. Maybe you've just lost your job at CHCH or Bell Media or Suncor or in some other layoff that didn't make the news. Maybe you've been diagnosed with cancer. Or, heaven forbid, your child has. Maybe you have depression or anxiety. Maybe you had a miscarriage or are trying, desperately, to conceive a child. Maybe there's alcoholism in your family and you're worried about another Christmas Day blow-up. Or maybe you're sober and can't face one more boozy holiday party. Perhaps treacherous family dynamics have left you out in the cold this year, disinvited to Christmas dinner. Maybe a loved one is in trouble with the law or has a mental illness or has lost their way and is suffering. And so you are too.
When you're facing a blue Christmas, the omnipresent holiday spirit can be hard to take: the harmonious strains of Silver Bells on the street corner as you rush back home to your reality; the "Merry Christmas" uttered at the end of every exchange, even an innocent inquiry.
People mean well, they do, but listening to someone who was administering a blood transfusion to a cancer patient the other day cheerily ask them if they were all ready for Christmas struck me as a little peculiar. I recognize that they were trying to engage in some kindhearted small talk to normalize the situation, but the breezy seasonal question felt awfully out of place in the sterile white room, the life-and-death situation.
The world presents a festive face at this time of year, but if your days are feeling scary and dark, you're not alone.
"There's a lot of expectations that we carry into the holiday season, expecting that we have to have this picture-postcard-perfect Christmas," said John Ogrodniczuk, one of the experts I spoke to this week about this. Dr. Ogrodniczuk is the director of the psychotherapy program in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. He's also involved with the Men's Depression and Suicide Network and says the holidays can be particularly tough on men because they can have trouble asking for help.
For some, Dec. 25 can feel like the longest, emptiest day. But it's not the only day of which to be wary.
Rene Weideman, a psychologist in private practice who is affiliated with UBC psychiatry, cites three studies with concerning results. Decades of data collected in Denmark and Australia show suicide rates spiked after Christmas, speaking to a so-called "broken promise" effect – where the holidays promise far more than they deliver. The 2014 Australian study showed statistically significant increases of suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.
"Some people before Christmas look ahead and what do they see? They see a lonely Christmas. So those are vulnerable people," Dr. Weideman said.
As for the New Year's Day data, he says this suggests people looking back over the year with profound disappointment.
Further, a U.S. study that looked at women whose spouses had died within the past six months, also from 2014, showed more emotional distress in January than December. "Support over the holiday season can diminish when it's over, leaving people more exposed to their losses," Dr. Weideman said.
So please, even if you're in full-on Christmas spirit mode, try to remember that this time of year can be excruciating for some.
And, if you can, try to reach out to anyone who might be vulnerable this holiday season. Or in January. And beyond.
And if you are among the many for whom there is not much joy in the world, I wish you, for now, some peace on this Earth.