Mental Health Article:

Recognize and combat holiday depression caused by loss of loved ones

As people grow older, the loss of loved ones can bring on depression that may be heightened during the holiday season. But older adults and the people who care about them can take steps to deal with depression to make the holidays bearable - and even enjoyable - after a loss.

It is natural to grieve the death of a spouse or close companion and to feel the loss more deeply during festive occasions that once were shared. Often, friends and family members are hesitant to talk to grieving survivors about their feelings. Or, they may go overboard in trying to "make things better."

AARP - one of 30 not-for-profit and public agencies that comprise the Healthy Aging Partnership in the Puget Sound area - offers these suggestions for helping others manage depression during the holidays.

Bringing up the subject of celebrations after losing a loved one can be hard, but it is essential. If you don't do this, family members may inadvertently hurt each other's feelings or misunderstand each others' actions or words.

People often want to continue to observe holidays as they did before, but they may find it difficult to follow the usual traditions. Make changes in the planned celebration that will help to accommodate the feelings of loss. After the event, talk openly about how it went and plan any necessary changes for the next time.

Grieving survivors may choose not to attend social and family gatherings. If there is a religious ritual connected to the event, you might suggest they attend that portion and not attend the "celebration."

Discuss ways to add a new element to celebrations or start a new tradition. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Did the deceased traditionally say grace or the blessing of before the holiday meal? Perhaps there is someone who wants to do it now; select the youngest family member or have the whole family say it together.
  • On special occasions, leave an empty chair at the table or light a candle in honor of your loved one.
  • Follow the example of one Jewish woman who places her deceased father's yarmulke and prayer book next to the Sabbath candlesticks she lights each Friday night.
  • Include the loved one's favorite food - pizza, salmon, strawberries - as part of a holiday meal.
  • Buy a large clear vase and write all your loved one's achievements, roles and characteristics around the vase with paint pens. Tuck it away each year, except on special days, and then fill it with your loved one's favorite flowers.

While depression following a loss is normal, being seriously depressed for two weeks or more is the sign of a potentially serious condition. Contact a doctor, friend or family member - or call the confidential assistance line at 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377) - if prolonged depression includes problems with sleep patterns, appetite, irritability, fatigue, persistent physical problems like headaches, or difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.

Never take suicide threats lightly. If you hear one - or ever have thoughts of suicide or harming yourself - call the local toll-free suicide crisis line immediately at 866-427-4747. It is not true that people who talk about suicide never do it.

To find resources for treating depression or managing any other issue associated with living a healthier life as an older adult, you can get free and confidential information and assistance by calling 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377) or visiting the Healthy Aging Partnership's web site at www.4elders.org.

HAP is generously supported by its partner agencies, Puget Sound Energy and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.