Empathy: To those facing difficulties during the holidays, compassion is essential


Illustration by Mia Carr

Emily Blumberg and Skylar Kreske

“Happy Holidays!” A celebratory feeling fills the atmosphere as the festive greeting rings throughout the hallways and classrooms. The entrances begin flooding with students, anxiously waiting to begin their two week vacation. But for some students, leaving school for winter break only serves as a reminder of a less-than-cheerful reality.

Covid-19 has magnified various intrafamilial issues that are typically highlighted during the holiday season, ranging from parent separation to financial strains, social worker David Hartman said. As a result, the South community has aimed to support students who may be experiencing such struggles through various resources and an overall sense of compassion.

“The school is a safe, structured place with many resources and community-based partners,” Hartman said. “It is our responsibility to connect as many of our students and their families to supports and services as possible.”

While the holidays may exacerbate the stress felt by family issues, Dr. Lara E Cummings, Assistant Principal for Student Services, affirmed that all resources are available to students year round and are specialized to fit everyone’s individual needs.

“Our Student Support Teams continue to be proactive in identifying students who are struggling,” Cummings said. “The intervention is individualized based on what the student needs. For some students, we provide individual counseling or group counseling. For others, we link the student to resources and support in the community.”

Among the various struggles faced by students, divorce is one that has impacted more families since Covid-19 started. As noted by the National Law Center, divorce filings in the United States have increased by 34 percent since the beginning of the pandemic in April, 2020. As a result, more students have had to grapple with their parents’ divorce or separation, which can prove to be more difficult during the holiday season, junior Terry Treger said.

Treger typically visits and celebrates the holidays with his mother’s side of the family, rarely spending this time of year with his father. In his experience, the pandemic negated the impact of divorce, as both parents stayed home for the holidays and he was able to move between their houses. However, Treger addressed the overall difficulty of handling such situations, even with certain aspects being alleviated for him due to Covid-19.

“My parents both live near each other during the year, but my brother and I always go with our mom to visit her side of the family for the holidays,” Treger said. “This means that my brother and I almost never get to spend the holidays with our dad or his side of the family, which can be difficult. [But] I have many friends who have a similar situation that I do, so I have people that I trust and that I can talk to that can really understand what having a separated family life is like.”

In Treger’s case, he felt that the most needed support came from his friends, rather than the school, and emphasized the importance of displaying empathy towards others during difficult times.

“I believe that it is important for students to support each other, especially during a time in a world like this one,” Treger said. “The people who know best what it’s like to be a student during this time are other students, so I think that friends in the community can be a great support system to those who are struggling.”

Even for students whose parents are not separated, the increased time spent with family during the holidays can heighten tension in homes with pre-existing conflicts, Hartman said. To alleviate stress during this time of year, he noted that the school offers various emotional support resources to families.

“The pandemic isolated most of us in our homes and many people lost their jobs,” Hartman said. “This increased stress and anxiety. In houses where there is tension or discord, you will likely [see] that tension increase [during the holidays]. We try to connect as many of our families as possible to resources that will help them navigate the holidays, [including connecting] some of our families to counseling.”

Financial strains are another struggle that many students’ families are facing this holiday season. The unemployment rate continues to drop, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that the employment rate remains below pre-pandemic times. As a result, more families have turned to community programs and nonprofits for support, including the Northfield Township Food Pantry.

The Northfield Township Food Pantry provides food and household items to Glenview, Northbrook, and Northfield residents. While the pantry mainly works to mitigate food insecurity, it also has a case manager who can help residents access other assistance programs for areas such as housing or rent, Gayle Curcio, the Pantry’s Community Coordinator, said.

“The Northfield Township Food Pantry provides perishable and non-perishable foods, diapers, personal hygiene, and household items [as well as] grocery store gift cards to Township residents who are food insecure,” Curcio said. “Anyone who needs assistance can visit the pantry’s webpage and complete the intake form or contact the pantry at 847-724-8300.”

South’s Student Services department also connects students whose families are experiencing financial strains to such resources and programs, Hartman said.

“We have connected some of our families to the food pantry, some to organizations that can help with rent assistance and utilities, and some to organizations that provide food and gifts for the holiday,” Hartman said. “We also help distribute gift cards, collected by our Parent Association, to many of our less fortunate families.”

In addition to assistive and emotional resources, freshman Lily Varga said it is essential to treat people with kindness. Varga experienced the loss of a loved one last year and said that the holiday season can be extraordinarily painful after experiencing a significant tragedy.

“The holidays might highlight issues by just reminding people that someone they love isn’t there anymore,” Varga said. “The loss of a loved one will be hard on my family and I this holiday season because of the fact that there will be an empty seat and one less person to converse with. I think it is especially harder on the holidays because that might’ve been the only time we would see them.”

Varga said because the holiday season is filled with reminders someone is missing, it becomes even more difficult to grieve. However, the support of others aided her in the process and Varga said supporting one another could be part of the solution to helping anyone who is struggling.

“My family and friends have always been extremely supportive and they’ve always been people I can turn to,” Varga said. “I think by just letting someone know you are there for them, you can change their whole day. It’s especially important for students to support one another because it can make such an impact on someone.”

Another amplified struggle this holiday season is continued travel restrictions. Senior Kaya Owczarek has not been able to see her older sister, who lives in England for two years due to the travel restrictions. Not being able to see her sister for two years has made the holidays difficult for Owczarek.

“Last year, we were super disappointed [when she could not come home],” Owczarek said. “Our holidays didn’t feel the same. I normally spend all of December with a bunch of anticipation until she comes home and [then] she’s here for two weeks and we spend a lot of quality time together. She’s lived in England for 13 years, so when she comes home it’s a big deal. We text a lot and we try to call but it’s not really the same, we were all pretty upset by [her not being able to visit].”

No matter the struggle that a student may be experiencing this holiday season, Cummings emphasized the importance of displaying empathy and connecting them to available resources.

“The most important thing [students and teachers] can do is listen,” Cummings said. “Based on what they hear, they should connect the student with resources when necessary. Through counseling, students can learn coping strategies to assist with some of their struggles.”

While this may be viewed as a positive time of year, Hartman reminds the South community to be cognizant of various family situations that may prevent some students from having a positive winter break, and echoes Cummings’s sentiment regarding the significance of showing compassion towards others.

“Don’t presume that everyone is looking forward to the holidays,” Hartman said. “Don’t presume that everyone goes on vacation or ‘celebrates’ holidays.  Don’t presume that the structure and support that school provides is something that all kids want to get away from for two weeks. I believe that those who are more fortunate can help those who are less fortunate.”