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Stressed and Depressed this Holiday Season? Here's Help

Holiday stress is fast becoming as frequent a topic as holiday shopping. Just type “holiday stress” into any search engine on the Internet, and you get approximately 10,000 hits for information on the topic. Parents are especially vulnerable candidates, as their stress is compounded by their children’s stress around the holidays.

Just as students often have final examinations, indecision as to how to spend their holiday vacations and with whom, and hoping that Santa, or someone, is going to find a way to fill that Christmas list, parents have to minister to their children’s needs and deal with their own holiday stressors simultaneously.

One term that has been used recently to describe the burnout that comes with helping others is Compassion Fatigue. Again, entering this term into a search engine yields thousands of results, and I was unable to find the source of the origin of the term. However, it is apt for our discussion.

Compassion fatigue is what occurs when one spends too much time taking care of others and fails to take care of oneself. It is the psychological equivalent of jumping into the ocean to save a drowning person and then remembering that you do not know how to swim. You both drown!

All of the suggestions for dealing with Compassion Fatigue recommend taking time for oneself, cutting back on schedules, and setting appropriate limits with self and others, realizing that one cannot be all things to all people all the time.

I would like to look at Compassion Fatigue, holiday stress and depression, and the collective negative side of the holidays in terms of a model of grieving that was introduced by Ken Moses, Ph.D. in 1978.

Dr. Moses is a clinical psychologist in Illinois who works with the parents of physically challenged children. Most of these children have a severe illness, such as Cerebral Palsy, or other either mentally or physically challenging conditions that will be life-long and have little hope of a “cure.” However, the child, as well as the parents, can accept this condition and do their best to help the child, as well as the family, have as good and complete a life as possible.

In order to provide a framework for working with these children and their parents, Dr. Moses coined the term Elusive Loss. This term connotes the idea that no one has died, the parents still have a live, breathing child, but they did not exactly get what they bargained for when they discovered a baby was coming. Hence, the loss is “elusive” because it is abstract and ethereal, as opposed to the concrete loss that accompanies a death. The grieving process is thus continuous and somewhat more difficult to resolve because new losses occur at every stage of development.

By combining the work on Elusive Loss with other work on grieving (cf. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying), we can approach holiday stress and depression from a model that allows us to reframe these issues and cope with them more successfully.

Most of us have many “elusive” losses at Christmas, including having lost many aspects of the idealized “one big, happy family” that we all thought we were part of, or longed to establish for ourselves someday. Keep these topics in mind as we go through the rest of this article, and I think you will like how you come out on the other side.

First, list the losses that you can think of regarding your holiday season. For example, my mother died on 12/23/1956. She was only 44-years-old, and it impacted my family in a way that we can only hope to understand in the Hereafter. I was four-years-old at the time, and my brother was a 17-year-old high school senior. My mother’s death put a damper on the holiday season for the Tucker family for years, but we carried on, my dad remarried, and we somehow made the best of a bad situation.

When making your list of holiday losses, do not limit it to “big deals,” such as deaths or other harsh realities. Think in Elusive Loss terms of the holiday you have, as opposed to the holidays you fantasized about. Think about small things that you would like to be different, or like to have been different in the past. It has been said that only by examining our losses, our wounds, can we hope to understand them and overcome them. Take time and make your list as thorough as possible. Ask your friends or family to make a list as well, and you may remember a lot of obstacles that you thought you could never overcome that have now turned into mere bumps in the road.

Now, let’s talk about grieving and how to address the losses, whether concrete or elusive. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross denoted five stages of grieving: denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and acceptance. Please refer to the original source for a complete explanation of the various stages and the symptoms that accompany each stage.

The grief experiences of my patients, as well as my own grieving, have convinced me that these

stages of grief are not sequential and neatly passed, as the grades in progressing toward your diploma in high school. That is, you can float among the stages, in and out of denial and sadness, and go from anger to bargaining within minutes while experiencing the grief process. Most experts say that six to twelve months is a normal amount of time to grieve a loss and come to accept it fully.

The good news is that, even though one is grieving, most people are able to carry on with their life, work, parenting, and other tasks while they grieve. That is, as opposed to an endogenous depression that is incapacitating and may confine the sufferer to bed or hospitalization, the grieving are largely walking among us, and they may be us!

It is important to acknowledge losses, both concrete losses and elusive losses, and to acknowledge the grieving process, in order to engage in healing oneself. I propose that the ultimate criterion for judging whether or not one has grieved successfully is a simple one: If your grieving gives you a feeling of compassion for others and brings you closer to others, then you have been successful in addressing your grief.

On the other hand, if you feel alienated from others, angry at others, sad that you have disappointed others, and you isolate yourself due to any of the above, then you may need to do some more grief work.

Consider the list of losses that you made above. Think of each item on the list as a “trigger” for thoughts and feelings. In order to simplify your work, limit your feelings to sad, mad, afraid, ashamed, and hurt. Then write down the thoughts or beliefs that accompany the triggers. These thoughts fuel or perpetuate the feelings, and the thoughts largely become automatic (read, unchallenged) as time goes on. By becoming aware of these automatic thoughts, you may be able to expedite the grieving process, which may allow you to become more compassionate and sociable during the holidays.

It may also make you a better parent, help you with your own holidays, and help your children to remember the holidays as a wonderful time that they want to replicate with their children in the future. Happy holidays, everyone! See you in 2011.


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