For many, the holiday season looms ahead and is anticipated with dread instead of excitement. The myth of peace, love and joy to all "and to all a good night" works well for companies marketing their wares, however it puts salt in the wound for people that may be suffering from grief and loss or going through other difficult times. The reality is that the holiday season is really hard for lots of people.
For many, the goal is just to survive the holidays. Holidays underscore the losses life. We may be grieving the loss of loved one who has died and wondering how to cope without them. For people in that category, constant daily reminders will include more public events such as parties and gift exchanges. We already deal with frequent reminders of our loss every time we look at our loved ones favorite chair or watch their favorite show. However, holiday celebrations are a way of marking our emotional connection. Gifts from others can be an external mirror of how well people know and love us. To not be able to share these events or gifts reminds us of the permanence of our loss.
We may instead suffer from ambiguous losses, such as: loving someone who suffers from an addiction; dealing with divorce; being isolated from your family as a result of emotional, physical or sexual abuse; dealing with chronic illness or Alzheimers; or being bombarded with Christmas culture when you are part of a non-Christian religion, which may leave you with feelings of oppression or not belonging. For people dealing with ambiguous loss, the feelings and triggers may be the same as those that have lost a person through death, yet the topic is more private or complicated, so the stress of your loss may not be supported by family and friends to the same degree.
Regardless of whether you find yourself dealing with ambiguous loss or a more recognized loss, here are some suggestions:
1. Realize that the anticipation of pain is always worse than the actual eventual pain. Our thoughts affect our feelings, and vice versa. Controlling your thoughts and learning to be mindful and stay in the moment are important skills.
2. Be kind to yourself. Don't expect yourself to function to your full capacity at this time - processing feelings can be exhausting. For example: break tasks into smaller chunks; give yourself permission to not have to stay for the entire party; buy something to take to a potluck instead of making it yourself. Be realistic about what is possible rather than what you would like to be able to accomplish or do.
3. Accept your feelings. Don't judge them. Sadness and tears are normal, and you don't have to take care of others by pretending that you are not sad. At the same time, it is okay to let yourself be happy, to enjoy happy memories and to make new ones. Feelings of sadness and happiness are all valid. You are not betraying your loved one if you let yourself be in the moment and not in the past with them. Be in the moment and let it be what it is.
4. Plan for the holidays with those that are closest to you. Decide which traditions are important to keep under these circumstances and which you want to change or let go. Make yourself the priority and decide what you think you are capable of to make the season meaningful and bearable.
5. Don't be afraid of change. Altering old traditions slightly can take the pressure off the absence of your loved one. In one family that had suffered divorce, the Mom put a note in the bottom of the stockings...."You don't have to pretend that it is the same this year....let's have a picnic dinner on the family room floor". This meant that they wouldn't have to spend Christmas dinner without Dad at the head of the table. The same can be done for other routines: which foods get cooked; when the gifts are opened or which family member hosts the celebrations.
6. Make a list of all the tasks, and break them down. Ask friends for help. You will have some good days and some hard days. Planning in advance helps you to feel in control. It gives you choices about when you want to try things, and how much you want to try to handle.
This is Alison Krauss's beautiful "Get me through December".