With the advent of Thanksgiving Day—and, for us college students, the short, but much-needed break from coursework that accompanies it—the holiday season is officially upon us.
Longtime Gorloks will undoubtedly recognize the signs across Webster Groves that herald the coming holidays each year. Pumpkins and fir saplings are on sale at Roger’s Produce, wooden reindeer have appeared at Gazebo Park and garlands adorn the mom-and-pops along Big Bend Boulevard.
For some celebrants, such a festive atmosphere provides a perfect backdrop for the tradition, warmth and general jubilance we associate with this time of year. Others, however, dread the holiday season for reasons as varied as the contents of a Christmas stocking.
According to Northern Illinois University professor Suzanne Degges-White, while some people “feel that the holidays require […] too much energy, too many expectations,” individuals who recently lost loved ones struggle to navigate this family-focused time of year in their absence. Mental illnesses also put many individuals at odds with holiday expectations of cheerfulness and sociability. During my sophomore year at Webster, I faced all of these challenges at once.
Two years prior, my mother lost her battle with mental illness; this was only my second Thanksgiving without her. Furthermore, I had recently been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and the medication I had been prescribed wasn’t working. My roommate left town to celebrate with his family, so I was alone in my small, dark dorm room on a seemingly deserted campus.
While every fiber of my being wanted to stay glued to the bed, sleeping away the day—or, better yet, the entire holiday season—I knew that doing so would lead nowhere good. So, out of desperation, I did something uncharacteristic: I sought out the company of others.
As it turns out, this is Degges-White’s principal recommendation for those who are grieving or otherwise suffering during the holidays: Don’t completely isolate yourself from other people. While such advice may sound simplistic or even self-evident, feeling lonely often proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading us to further isolate ourselves, intentionally or unintentionally. Willingly placing yourself in the presence of other people is a big first step.
Anywhere inhabited by human beings would have sufficed for my purposes, but I must have been hungry, because I chose to go to Marletto’s. No sooner had I opened the door than Kimberly, the cashier, invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family.
I had only ever spoken to Kimberly while paying for meals, and she certainly couldn’t have known the despondency I felt while contemplating a Thanksgiving spent alone. It was as if the universe, in a gesture of cosmic justice, was rewarding me for having mustered the strength to get out of bed, out of that sty of self-pity.
According to New York University professor Michelle Munson, “reaching out to someone who is more isolated than you” is one of the most effective weapons with which to combat holiday loneliness.
“A simple gesture goes a long way,” Munson said.
Whether Kimberly was familiar with Munson’s work, she certainly understood this principle. Indeed, while I was ultimately unable to accept Kimberly’s invitation, the very gesture was enough to imbue my Thanksgiving with true holiday cheer.