Why the Joyful Season Leaves Us So Blue


I had nothing to be blue about this season. Not really. True, only two of our five children could come home because the other three were going to be far away, and that made me sad. But everyone in our blended family of seven is well. Thriving, in fact: From my husband and myself on down to our youngest child, now a college freshman, we are in good health and doing things we are passionate about. We are blessed.

Why, then, did I feel so depressed? Not just this holiday season, but during nearly every one?

I am a joyful person. I have wonderful marriage and work that makes me happy. I have a roof over my head and plenty to eat. I exercise, see friends, and make time to do things I enjoy -- knitting, hiking, yoga, the occasional Broadway splurge.

Yet, every holiday season, I find myself fighting off waves of grief, and even crying during rare private times. In the bathroom. Driving the car. Before I fall asleep at night, even, I might unexpectedly break down in tears.

Part of it is exhaustion. There is nothing as exhausting as Christmas, no matter how much fun it is. There are guests and laundry, grocery and gift shopping, cooking and cleaning up the kitchen, then doing it all over again.

I am also well aware of the expectations we all have. This is supposed to be the joyful season -- joyful to the point of mania. Decorate the tree! Load up your credit card! Drink egg nog! See that new movie! Buy an even bigger roast beef! Send out those cards and gifts! Go to The Nutcracker! Are we having fun yet?

Sometimes. Other times, I felt this chilly shadow of grief falling over me. I could not understand why.

And then, quite by accident, I turned on the radio Sunday morning. Christmas was over. I was starting to recover from the festivities. I'd even managed to find the cards I forgot to mail the week before. A sermon was on the public radio station when I tuned in, and normally I would have flicked to another channel, found some music or a lively talk show.

Then the minister began talking about his own expectations of Christmas. He had grown up in a family as complex as ours, a blended family where we're always feeling a little bit of culture clash as we split our children with our ex-spouses.

I was also a child of divorce and often felt torn between my mother and father and their two households during the holidays. What the minister said, quite simply, was that during every holiday, we invite joy, but sometimes unexpectedly find ourselves in a "crowd of sorrows" as we realize how much we miss the people who aren't here, and mourn simpler times. We find ourselves wishing things could go back to the way they were.

I thought about this sermon for days. I remembered my grandmother and father, both of whom loved Christmas and are long gone, and I mourned the fact that my oldest children were traveling over the holidays with the father in Spain. I missed my stepdaughter, who is on her way to Brazil, and my stepmother, who was married to my father for a while, before he divorced her and remarried my mother.

My own mother is healthy, and I was glad to have her with me for the holidays this year, along with my youngest brother. At the same time, I missed my middle brother, who spent Christmas with his family in England. I also missed our youngest daughter, who is on her way to Brazil, though I was happy she could spend Christmas with my husband's parents in Florida.

For every person gathered at our table this year, someone was missing. Or maybe two someones. Whether they were simply far away or departed forever, I wanted them all back: my grandparents, my father, my uncles and children. I wanted them all right here in my house during the holidays so that I could put my arms around them and say this: I love you, we are blessed.

The crowd of sorrows is real. Now that I understand it and am on the other side, I can see what I couldn't before: that, despite the grief over those departed or missing during the holidays, the sorrow is a blessing, too. It means the love is still there in our hearts.

Happy New Year, everyone. May you be blessed with a crowd of sorrows, and a crowd of loved ones around you in the here and now, too.