Blue Christmas: Don’t let the joy of the season cause you pain

Dec 11, 2012 by Alene Keenan

The holiday season is upon us. Traditionally a time of good will and good cheer, the holidays are not happy for everyone. Those who have lost someone they love, had a significant life change, are unemployed, are far from loved ones, or have unhappy childhood memories of the holidays often struggle at this time of year.

Those who are sad or grieving may find it difficult to interact with people enjoying a big holiday event, and it can be equally hard for the people around them to know what to do.

It is tough to imagine the hollow vacuum that consumes you in grief and loss. Christmas is a bad time to be lonely. The festive mood can make you feel worse as you see all of the arrangements being made for celebration, as you listen to holiday music (whether you want to or not), and as you visit stores that are decked out with holiday cheer.

The first holiday season after you suffer the loss of a spouse, parent, sibling, co-worker or close friend is difficult. There may be many years of memories of when everyone was together. These memories can be overwhelming and bring tears of sadness.

Sometimes it helps to remember the best time you ever had with this person at the holidays. Share that memory with others. Write about it, look at pictures, and maybe reconnect with others who would remember it, too.

A funny thing happens when you recall the good times and the joy: the mind and the heart experience the same emotions as the original event, and you are blessed with it all over again. Your grief is lifted for a time. Now may be a good time to create a new memory, a new happy experience to share with others in the years to come.

Yacht crew who live and work together often become like an extended family. Therefore, when a teammate is experiencing sadness or grieving a death or a loss, the impact on the rest of the crew can be stressful and can influence the workplace in various ways.

Crew members living and working around a grieving person around the holidays can have difficulty understanding the grief process unfolding at this time of year, and it also unfairly detracts from their own holiday pleasure. It makes them feel helpless, not knowing what to do. Productivity can suffer and the dynamics can change.

Even years after an event, many people continue to feel sad and lonely. There is no expiration date on grief. Grief only changes in intensity; it never goes away. It usually helps the grieving person to know that their loss is acknowledged. No one likes to hear that enough time has passed that they should “get over it and move on”. People never forget and never forgive if they think a person has not been respectful of tragedy, death or loss, no matter how long ago it occurred. 

In the long run, that kind of attitude seems insensitive and can damage morale for the whole crew.

Any support fellow crew can offer is valued and will help a sad teammate heal. Here are some suggestions for how to help a co-worker deal with the holiday blues:
Acknowledge the crew member’s sorrow.
Let them know you empathize with the impact of their loss.
Expect tears and sadness. Often there will be anger as well, both at the original event and often when others try to convince them to participate in holiday plans.
Express sympathy openly and from the heart, whether in person or with a note.
Expect to listen to the story of the incident or loss again and again. Listen with grace.
Respect the grieving person’s desire for privacy. Honor closed doors and silence in conversation.
Remember to include them in social plans. Let them decide whether to accept or decline the invitation.
Accept less than their best performance for a while, but expect a return to the best when the holidays have passed.
Think about helping them find a way to create a new holiday ritual. Often it is very helpful if the person can connect with the crew and community somehow in a giving way.

I have found that by reaching out to the community and finding someone else to help in some way, we can ease our holiday blues. If you are somewhere that you have time off (good luck with that, but it does happen), you can volunteer at a shelter. You can also join a church group and start to create a new community.

I was fortunate to work on a yacht in St. Bart’s for several years at the holidays. Since the yacht owners did not celebrate Christian holidays, I was able to find time to attend midnight mass services on several occasions.

Not only was it a beautiful ceremony, it let me connect with shopkeepers and vendors that I dealt with regularly on an entirely different level. It also gave me the fresh experience of seeing the rituals of my childhood enacted in a new and foreign setting. I saw that even though the setting and the language were different, the ritual is the same.

Sometimes with compassion and support, you can help someone make it through their difficulties and shake the holiday blues.

If you are feeling the blues yourself, try to dig deep and think about how you can accept the past memories in a new light, and assume responsibility for this new place in your life. I have a lot of sad memories myself, and it took me years to understand them and finally let them go.

I felt safer when I held onto the memories and feelings, because they felt familiar and in a strange way, they felt comfortable. When I tried to let them go, I often felt guilty, as if I was wrong to move on and leave that part of myself behind.

I also felt as if I was giving up control of the situation, and I was afraid to be vulnerable in front of others, afraid I would be too emotional.

Eventually, I learned that some problems must simply be lived with, and some simply lived through. This might be hard to understand if you have not experienced significant tragedy or loss in your life. You may have no idea just what your friend or co-worker may have gone through.

I used to think that if I could just understand why things happen the way they do, I would be free of the burden of the memories and the feelings. I started to see that I was attached to my feelings in a way that guaranteed a certain outcome — namely, the opportunity to indulge myself in slight sympathy when I was feeling vulnerable, and the ability to avoid the really big risk of challenging my beliefs, and accepting the responsibility to move forward in life.

But to really grow, I needed to surrender, not understand. So many of us seem to fully understand our unhappy situation, but normally cannot — or sometimes will not — do anything about it.

I finally realized that the only way to achieve true transformation is to let go. Let go, and let God, as they say. That said, I am not dishonoring any person, the memory of anyone, the memory of suffering, or the tragedy or grief of any situation by releasing the pain.

Over time I have learned that letting go of our attachment to a situation is a crucial key in transforming our lives and becoming a better person. The passage of time helps us leave the memory further and further behind, finally sinking into the distance, like the view of the shore as we go out to sea, disappearing behind the waves as we move away. The memory will forever hold a place of honor in my heart, for without all of the pieces of the past, I would not have become the person I am today.

As Kahlil Gibran said, “Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.” Unfortunately, the walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy.

It can be challenging to understand why someone is unhappy during the holidays, but the rewards of being patient and helping them process and move through this difficult time are priceless. 


The yachting life is so very unique and special in that we have a built-in community and family to wake up to every morning, whether we appreciate it or not. Sometimes it is hard to realize how lucky we are. Every day is a new dawn, a fresh opportunity to build different rituals and renew relationships with the people in our lives.

Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stewardess for 20 years. She offers interior crew training classes, workshops, seminars, and onboard training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions ( Comments on this column are welcome at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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