It’s not the most wonderful time of the year, at least not for Clark County residents who are grieving the absence of parents, children and friends. Seasonal sadness could also stem from the loss of a home, job and financial stability, the loss of mobility due to disease or chronic pain or even the death of a beloved pet. The past few years have only deepened our collective wounds, whether it be the death of loved ones from COVID-19 or pandemic-fueled economic woes.
When you’re sad, however, the last thing you want is Burl Ives gushing about a holly jolly Christmas. You may prefer a dim, quiet place where you can cry if you feel like it and nobody minds. That place might be the Longest Night service at St. John Lutheran Church, held every year on the winter solstice, Dec. 21.
“The longest darkness of the year represents some people’s mood,” said Doris LeCount, a member of the St. John congregation who helped design the service, now in its 12th year. “Maybe they don’t feel like ‘rejoice, rejoice, rejoice’ this year because of what’s going on in their lives. This provides them a safe place to be real with their feelings.”
The lights in the sanctuary are turned down low and music is designed to be soothing. Attendees can expect quiet singing, prayer, meditative reading and stories about people who have gone through hard times, said LeCount, but the key descriptor for the evening is “contemplative.”
There’s also an opportunity later in the service to come forward and light candles, but it’s completely voluntary. Church members are also available for one-on-one prayer, but only if asked.
Strategies for coping with holiday sadness and stress
- Set expectations for family gatherings.
“For many people during the holidays, being with family is stressful, and they feel obligated to attend family events,” Barber said. “With my clients, I dive into ‘What do you want to do? Can you be with family in a safe way?’ ”
Barber suggests developing an exit strategy and setting a time limit based on what you think you can tolerate. This lets you leave on a good note instead of waiting for an argument or confrontation, Barber said. Let the host know before you arrive or soon after that you’ll be leaving in two or three hours, whatever you’ve determined. Have an excuse ready if you think you’ll need it, such as work or travel.
If it’s your spouse’s or partner’s family that gives you grief, Barber suggested planning to arrive in separate vehicles so that you’ll be able to leave when you need to and your significant other can stay as long as they want. If you don’t have your own transportation, establish a code word with your ride so that they’ll know when you’ve had enough and it’s time to wrap things up.
Finally, remember that you can choose not to see your family at all if that’s what you need to do to preserve your mental health.
- Plan for extra sobriety support.
“Alcohol often shows up in family gatherings. Especially for people who are trying to live a sober life, the holidays can be super triggering and make people uncomfortable with setting boundaries,” Barber said. “Being your authentic self is preferable, but in situations where you can’t, taking your own nonalcoholic beverage might be better.”
If you aren’t prepared to discuss your sobriety with your family, put a nonalcoholic beverage in a wine glass or brandy snifter, Barber said, so that your abstention doesn’t become a topic of teasing or curiosity. Bring your own nonalcoholic drinks if you can — something festive so you feel like you’re having a treat.
If you know you’re going to have a tough time, arrange to have a conversation with your sponsor or drive directly to a support group or Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after your party, Barber said. She noted that AA often offers extra meetings around the holidays because it’s such a difficult time for those practicing sobriety.
- Treat yourself well.
“Allow yourself to enjoy the holidays,” Barber said. “For some people, that’s hard, because growing up, the holidays were not enjoyable. So dive in to places that feel really good. That might mean driving around to look at lights, finding a choir or curling up with a warm cup of hot cocoa.”
For many people, the holidays might mean a more hectic work schedule or extra hours in order to take days off, Barber said. That’s hard mentally as well as physically, so give yourself the gift of extra self-care.
Taking a walk is an immediate way to help yourself feel better, Barber said, so get outside, get moving and enjoy nature’s healing effect. Barber also suggested making time for meditation or scheduling an appointment with a body worker like a massage therapist, acupuncture practitioner or chiropractor. Pay attention to what you’re eating and try not to overdo it with seasonal sweets — and also make sure to get plenty of sleep. When your body feels good, it’s better able to withstand the stress of the holidays, Barber said.
- Ask for what you need (and be gentle).
“Some people can feel liberated by choosing to stay alone for the holidays and then, for other people, it can be truly heartbreaking,” said Barber. “If you have the opportunity, call friends and neighbors. Be a little bit vulnerable and say, ‘I don’t have plans for the holidays. Can I come to your house?’ It’s amazing how many people will say, ‘Absolutely, yes, you can.’”
If you’ve got the holiday blues, take stock of how you feel and then take action. Don’t wait for others to ask about your internal emotional state because they might not know that you’re feeling sad or lonely, Barber said. If you know someone who might be feeling down, reach out. For some people, this is the first or second Christmas after losing a loved one from COVID-19 or other illness, Barber said.
Most of all, be gentle with each other, Barber said. This could be the first time that families have gotten together in two or three years, and we’ve all been dealing with increased anxiety, economic pressure and political polarization. Some people might bow out of family parties expressly to avoid ideological confrontations, she said, but don’t hold it against them. Kindly allow them to protect their well-being however they need to.
- Seek help.
No matter what coping strategies you employ, grief, sadness and depression may overwhelm you. If you have thoughts of self-harm, call the Clark County Crisis Hotline, 800-626-9137, or the National Suicide Prevention Line, 988. If you aren’t in immediate crisis but need to talk to someone, call the Clark County Warm Line, open every day from 4 p.m. to midnight, at 360-903-2853. For ongoing, long-term mental health support, visit the Southwest Washington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at namiswwa.org. NAMI offers a wealth of local resources and support groups, as well as a list of crisis numbers especially for youth, veterans and LGBTQ or those suffering from addictions or eating disorders.
IF YOU GO:
What: Longest Night Service
Where: St. John Lutheran Church, 11005 N.E. Highway 99, Vancouver
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
“If a person comes to the service and just wants to sit in the pew and not do anything, that’s fine. They’re not going to be asked to walk forward or anything,” said Diane Stevens, a church member and musician who has participated in the service every year. “They can do it however they wish.”
Even though it’s a Lutheran service, Stevens and LeCount emphasized that it’s open to anyone of any denomination — or no denomination at all. There’s no call to for attendees to participate unless they want to and there’s no pressure to return or to join the church.
LeCount is aware that many churches offer similar services by different names. Some occur on the winter solstice and some don’t, but all aim to offer solace to attendees. She first encountered the concept in the fall of 2011, after her husband had died. She was visiting family in Seattle and saw a notice for a longest night service. In the midst of her grief, it appealed to her.
“Since my grief was really fresh at this time, I thought there are people in my congregation in Vancouver who would benefit from this service,” LeCount said.
LeCount is clear about the fact that The Longest Night is a Christian worship service as well as a place where anyone can feel welcome to express grief. She’s quick to note that the dual objectives aren’t mutually exclusive. The somber service reminds her that joy can be found in the midst of sorrow.
“I believe that grief can be a sacred space. The best news is that we’re not in that space by ourselves because Christ Jesus is always in that space with us,” LeCount said. “ ‘The Longest Night’ is the way we title the service. If there’s a subtitle, it would be that there’s light in the darkness.”