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Dear Christine, Concerned in Canton

| November 19, 2018

Dear Christine,

Every year it’s the same thing with my wife. I love her dearly and really try to understand but I am struggling. Both of her parents are gone and so is a sibling. They’ve been gone for over 20 years but each holiday she becomes so depressed that it practically ruins our holiday. She makes excuses not to attend parties and events because she says she’s too sad. I’ve had losses too. My parents are also gone and have had my heart broken a few time but I just want to choose to be happy and to enjoy the friends and family we do have. I’ve tried everything to talk her out of this seasonal depression to no avail. She’s fine the rest of the year but the holidays from Thanksgiving till the end of the year she just chooses to be miserable. This year I choose to be happy so I am going to accept invitations and let her make her choices. She passed on family Thanksgiving, I went to Christmas Eve party without her and Christmas she stayed home. Am I wrong to leave her at home alone? Signed, Concerned in Canton

Dear Concerned,

I think you’re making the best choice you can for you and for her at this point. Your wife has had some terrible losses, and it is common, even years later, for mourners to have an “anniversary affect” that causes them to feel sad and depressed. Mix in the holidays, with the Norman Rockwell images of family gathering around the table, happy and smiling, and then the darkest time of the year, with the winter solstice and clouds taking away daylight and you’ve got a recipe for depression. And depressed people tend to withdraw, be sad, cry, have no energy, eat too much (or too little), sleep too much (or to little) and take no pleasure in daily activities, and especially not in holiday reminders of all their losses. Grief is normal and it sounds like it hasn’t eased up for her over the years as it does for most people. In a real sense, she is choosing to hang on to this grief. Having to process grief and let go of the sadness, but retain the memories and love of those who have died is not pleasant work. The next process is to start creating new memories of the holidays, expand the family to include those who have married or were born in the past years, or adding friends to our family of choice. Change is the one thing you can count on in life.

It is important for your sanity and well being, for you to continue to celebrate the holidays, see friends and go to family events during these weeks of the year. You have valid needs to connect with others and keep your family as close as you can as families change year by year. You cannot change your wife, and apparently she isn’t going to be talked out of her grief and depression. So, you can respect that she has her own deep experience she is wrapped up in and she is not ready to let it go, or work on it in various therapies: talking to a psychologist, or minister or rabbi, using “light” therapy of a 10,000 lux light box that is frequently used in Alaska, where it is completely dark for months. Or she could try taking an antidepressant for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) the disorder so many of us around the 45 parallel and north get in the winter. Psychiatrists have researched that exposure to full spectrum lighting (light box) for a couple of hours a day is as effective as antidepressants, but they will prescribe antidepressants for deep mourning and SAD.

Exercise is another healthy therapy, as it literally changes your brain chemistry to help you feel more energy, make new memories and consolidate old ones. The more we are learning about the brain, we find having so many muscles and ways to move is a key reason why our brains are so big compared to other animals. And the New Yorker in December had a recent article about the intelligence of plants. Plants don’t have brains, because they don’t move like animals, but they are sensitive and responsive and adaptive to their environment and to 3000 chemical communication. So brains work better when they are orchestrating movement of the body.

So I’m probably preaching to the choir to you! The hard part is that you may know all this, and you may even practice ways to keep yourself emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually healthy, but your wife is not, at least not at this time of the year. All you can do is life your life, taking care of you, being an example of how to cope with difficult times. Then you can ask her if she would like suggestions about coping that might help her too. If she’s not ready to receive any input, then you can’t push it on her. You can’t decide what is best for her, even though you think you know. It’s her life and she has to decide when she’s ready to try a new way of getting through the holidays and the darkness of winter and losses. So, continue to go to the events you enjoy and be sensitive to your wife, but don’t push her to do anything differently. You’ll never talk her out of this depression. And when she’s ready, she’ll take some new steps for herself.

Christine C. Cantrell, PhD
1026 W. 11 Mile Rd,
Suite C
Royal Oak, MI 48067

Click here to email Christine.

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