Holiday depression affects more people than you may think. While it can be a struggle, there are some ways to avoid feeling down this time of year. USA TODAY


Shon Wells’ young sons become more depressed as Christmas Day approaches.

This is the first holiday season the boys will celebrate without their mom. Wells’ wife, Janet, died of colon cancer in June.

When they were four, the Wellses attended so many holiday events they needed to keep track of them on a calendar. They did everything from visit the Holiday House in Fort Myers to attend performances of “The Gospel According to Scrooge” at Faith Assembly. 

In spite of his grief, Wells has tried to make the holidays as normal for his sons Caleb, 9, and Noah, 8, as he can. He put up a Christmas tree and decorated their North Fort Myers home. He takes them to the holiday events that became part of his family’s holiday traditions. Keeping his sons’ spirits up has been one of his top priorities.

“They are so sad,” Wells said. “How do I make this a good Christmas for the kids?

"There is nothing worse than not being able to take your kids’ pain away. I’m worried about Christmas morning and how they’ll feel without their mom around.”

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The holidays aren’t happy for everyone. For families grieving the loss of a parent or child, the holidays can be a painful time. Some families struggle with whether to preserve traditions shared when their loved one was alive. Parents worry about younger children falling into depression because of the loss. They wonder whether the holiday they celebrate will ever be the same.

It can be overwhelming for parents plodding through their own grief to make life as normal as possible when life after loss is anything but.

Last year Marcy Turner and her family put up a Christmas tree in their home east of Fort Myers.

This year they couldn’t bring themselves to decorate one. 

Nothing has been the same since Turner’s daughter Madison killed herself in 2015. The holidays are no exception.

“It’s not that we can’t celebrate,” Marcy Turner said. “But there’s a hole where she should be that will never be filled.”

Turner said her daughter struggled with heroin addiction for years and killed herself by overdose. Madison, then 21, left a note, and her family was left with conflicting feelings of rage, love, grief and confusion. Those emotions haven’t gone away.

“You love them, but you’re furious at them,” Turner said. “She stole from us. She lied to us. The person you see in front of you when they’re using heroin isn’t the same person you know. Heroin ate away everything that was our daughter.”

Turner sometimes wishes she could allow herself to be swallowed by the grief of losing her daughter, but she has another to take care of. Every day, and now during the holidays, Turner tries putting on a brave face for her younger daughter, Freya, 14. 

“We’re trying to do things as normal. Celebrate as normal. Live each day as normal. Oftentimes I don’t really want to, but that is so unfair to Freya,” Marcy Turner said. “She deserves as much from me as she had before. More, actually. It actually helps me, as well. I have to teach her to live her life fully, and I have to do that by example.”

The Turners didn’t do much Christmas shopping this year, but Marcy Turner has a surprise for her youngest. On Christmas Day they might watch a parade and go to brunch. 

“Just be together,” Marcy Turner said.

The Turners and the Wellses share a grief of losing a loved one. They also share a place they can go to process that grief alongside dozens of families who have experienced and understand loss.

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Both families in recent weeks attended support group sessions at Valerie’s House, a Fort Myers-based nonprofit organization that helps children and families cope with the loss of a loved one. The sessions take place in a cozy home with a wall of teddy bears and a memory wall full of photos of family members lost.

During their sessions the families created commemorative glass jars with photos of their loved ones. Children, teens and adults are usually split into separate sessions, but this activity was designed so children worked together with their parents or caretakers. They talked about their favorite holiday memories and traditions and what they miss about the person they lost. The families then huddle in a circle in the backyard and share their memories.

At the Village School of Naples, where Valerie’s House earlier this year acquired a space to expand its programs, Collier County families grieving loved ones engaged in the same activity last week.

Kyleigh Geraghty mourns for a man she hardly remembers. Her father killed himself in his family’s Golden Gate Estates home when Kyleigh was 8. In one day Kyleigh and her siblings lost their dad and their home. They didn’t return to the house after their dad’s suicide.

Now 13, Kyleigh remembers what her dad looked like. She looks very much like him. She remembers some of the things they loved to do together — ride four-wheelers, watch television and shoot BB guns. But she doesn’t remember much else.

“I think maybe she blocks things out,” said Dawn Vaughn, Kyleigh’s mom.

Vaughn said Kyleigh struggled with guilt over what she could have done to keep her father alive. 

She and her dad used to wear matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. 

“Now it’s something we all do together,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn said her children go through highs and lows during the holidays because the anniversary of their father’s death is in January. 

“The first Christmas we tried to keep things as normal as possible,” Vaughn said. “The kids and I got the tree and put it up ourselves. We were so proud.”

Kyleigh and many of the other kids attending the group sessions said they didn’t like to talk about their loss with their families, but being around other kids who experienced loss has helped them open up.

“I don’t shut down here,” Kyleigh said. 

Vicki Jay, CEO of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, said the key to helping kids grieve, especially during the holidays, is to give them permission to express their feelings however they need to, whether by talking about their loved one, drawing or doing other activities. 

“Research and best practices tell us the way to do more harm is to ignore that the death is impacting children, the family and the holiday,” Jay said. “Follow the lead of the child. If they don’t want to talk or share, it’s OK, but you’re giving them the permission and the space to do that.”

Similarly, Jay said, it’s important for adults to be honest about their emotions with their kids. Jay said children are naturally more expressive with their grief and have less of a filter, while adults tend to stay quiet and internalize their grief.

“We think we have to have all the answers as adults, and death is one of the things we don’t have all the answers for,” Jay said. “If you hide your grief from your child, you’re not doing yourselves a favor.

"At the same time, you don’t want your child to see you at the point of collapse. It’s OK to shed tears and tell them you’re sad, too. It gives them permission to have that same openness and show kids how to be a healthy griever.”

Wells said one of his greatest personal struggles after his wife’s death is processing emotions he had never felt or expressed.

“I’ve been an emotional wreck and haven’t known how to deal with it,” Wells said. “I felt like I was going crazy. When other people started telling me it was normal, that what I was feeling was OK, it helped.”

Wells said it also helped that his boys made friends with other kids who could understand them.

Freya, Madison Turner’s younger sister, said that although more than two years have passed since her sister’s death, the pain is sometimes still fresh.

“People think I should just be able to get over it,” Freya said. “My own shadow reminds me of her. She was my best friend, but I had no idea what she was going through. I know what I’ve felt since she died, and now I can help other kids who feel the same.”

Danielle Visone, program director at Valerie’s House, said sometimes people don’t know what to say to others when they’re coping with the loss of a loved one, especially during the holidays.

She said being a friend and offering support is the easiest way to help. 

“Reach out and say, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ Be mindful of the words you say to someone who’s grieving over the holidays. It’s not necessarily a happy time for them,” Visone said.

For parents, Visone said it’s important to acknowledge things are different and to include children in the conversation about the changes and their expectations going forward.

“People put a lot of pressure on themselves,” Visone said. “If you’re grieving, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, but include kids in the decisions.”

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