British Columbia

Christmas loneliness and grief 'very, very common', says clinical counsellor

"It's a time where the social image is that everyone should be cheerful and a lot of times it's not our reality," says registered clinical counsellor Frances Ferguson.

'It's a time where the social image is that everyone should be cheerful and [often] it's not our reality'

Clinical counsellor Frances Ferguson says loneliness and the holiday blues can hit hard during the Christmas season, especially because many feel a social pressure to be cheerful and bright. (Johner RF/Getty Images)

The holiday season has never been the same for registered clinical counsellor Frances Ferguson since she first moved to the West coast from Manitoba 12 years ago.

Used to having large gatherings over Christmas with all her extended family, it's been an ongoing struggle to adjust to a much quieter holiday.

    "Probably the worst was going out to a restaurant where we sat feeling very lonely, and seeing other tables with many other lonely couples," Ferguson told B.C. Almanac guest host Jodie Martinson.

    'It's not our reality'

    Ferguson, who has a counselling office in Campbell River, said loneliness is "very, very common" at this time of year. 
    Frances Ferguson is a registered clinical counsellor in Campbell River, B.C. (facebook.com/Frances Ferguson Registered Clinical Counsellor)

    "It's just particularly poignant at this time of year because … it's a time where the social image is that everyone should be cheerful and a lot of times it's not our reality."

      She said there are a number of reasons why people also get the holiday blues: financial issues, family pressures, and feeling that there is so much to do and one has to do everything a certain way.

      Ferguson said that many may also feel grief and loss around this time, especially if they've lost someone over the past year, or have lost a family member during a previous holiday season.

      'Why I love you'

      Bernadette Butler of Vancouver is one of those affected by grief during the holidays; she lost her father one Christmas morning.

      That inspired her to create an online tool where people can record video messages telling someone why they love them.

      "We often say, 'I love you' at the end of a sentence when talking to loved ones, especially when they're overseas or in another part of the country, but when was the last time we shared why we love somebody?" Butler told B.C. Almanac.

      "I would give anything to turn back time and share why I loved my dad."

      Butler founded Left Stuff, which she describes as a "family-first technology business", a website that has a number of tools for families to create traditions and share memories.

      Bernadette Butler is the CEO of Left Stuff. (facebook.com/Left Stuff)

      The "Why I Love You" tool is one of those, and comes with prompts to help people come up with what they want to say.

      "When you start to express gratitude for somebody else you feel great," said Butler.

      "It's really a win-win, because the result is when the recipient receives the video — that they can watch over and over and over again — the results are unbelievable. Tear-jerking in some cases, explosions with happiness in others."

      Butler said these video messages, which she has been making herself since 2003, have helped her feel connected with family that aren't with her during the holidays.

      'Sad and lonely'

      Ferguson said that creating new traditions, and acknowledging grief over the holidays, can alleviate the sadness one may feel during the season.

      "The key point is creating traditions that are yours, rather than trying to fit to something else which doesn't fit for you anymore," she said.

      Ferguson added that it is important for people to find others to share the holidays with — for example, she has started a Facebook group for people who don't want to be lonely over the holidays.

      "If I'm really sad and lonely my inclination is to pull back and pull in, but it's that getting together with one or two others that makes all the difference," she said.

      Ferguson added that it's important for those who have lost loved ones to find a way to honour their memories over the holiday season, "not trying to keep Christmas the same, because it will never be the same, but honouring the grief."

      "Fortunately in a number of communities they're now offering what we call blue Christmas services, often through churches or hospices, which are acknowledging the grief and the losses that people experience," she said.

      "It is one form of expression and I encourage people to participate in that."


      To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: The less jolly side of Christmas: grief, loneliness and the holiday blues

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