When Holidays Hurt

At certain times of the year, families and friends gather to eat, exchange gifts, celebrate favorite traditions and generally catch up with each other. The atmosphere changes as businesses close, churches hold special services, and retailers tempt shoppers with sales. Decorations and lights are put up everywhere in an effort to spark holiday spirit, before the cold and darkness of winter sets in. It does seem to be a kinder season, in many ways, but it is also a season when conflict, loneliness, and loss can hold a sharper edge. 

Expectations (yours or those other people set forth) might be high at a time when you feel you just can’t face them anymore. For a lot of reasons, you might dread traditional strife and remember only past or present disappointments. Maybe you feel trapped, as if you cannot take care of your own needs if you fulfill the desires of others. Maybe this year is different because you have lost someone important and need the world around you to stand still for a while.

Stress and grief change everything, and holidays are no exception. Certainly, the days that we hope will bring love and forgiveness into our hearts are often difficult to navigate. Does it have to stay that way?

No, it doesn’t. Using coping strategies can help, things that anyone can do. They are not expensive; they do not require extreme effort. They are, rather, the actions and ideas that hold true to the best concept of togetherness: kindness, love, forgiveness, and joy. Even if you are alone, they will hold you up.

Keep the season simple, starting with a pen and a piece of paper. List those you love, and think about who can be with you at some point during the holidays and who cannot. What do they mean to you? If you want to write about each person in a journal or notebook, you might gain some insights about your relationships. You can also write down a few goals or plans. 

Use a calendar to mark the days you might be expected to do something with family or friends. Decide now that you will take on only what you feel you can. Build in some flexibility and time for rest. There is no law that says your home or office must be decorated. You do not have to cook or send out greeting cards. If you want to express your love or thankfulness or share what you’re feeling, a letter or email works fine at this or any other time of year.

If family members have depended on you for food and hosting in the past, ask others to do some of the work you have always done. Decline some invitations. For those you accept, plan for your own transportation, and let your host or hostess know you may need to leave early. Sometimes, when stress builds, a few minutes alone can make you feel better. Taking a short walk outside and away from the crowd is an option that will give you a chance to gather your strength before returning.

Maybe there are people on your list that you really want to remember with gifts. Shopping is easier if you keep items meaningful. Online retailers can take care of the wrapping, shipping, and delivery. Usually any extra cost is minimal. If you are a do-it-yourself type, consider a basket with a candle, a book, a box of special tea or hot chocolate mix and a mug. For children, clutter-free giving might include tickets for a future visit to an aquarium or a movie both of you would enjoy. 

If you are seeing a counselor, ask about holiday availability and the possibility of arranging extra sessions. Keep a trusted friend’s telephone number with you, and let him or her know you might need to call. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, make sure to keep emergency and crisis line numbers close and use them or go to the nearest emergency room. Plan refills ahead of time to ensure medications are always accessible. With patience and planning, you can make the holidays easier. Here are a few other suggestions.

  • Travel (short trips or long), perhaps enjoying a briefer time with family and friends.
  • Start new traditions; keep only the ones that are important to you. Each year can be different.
  • Make a calming kit from a small, zippered bag. Add items you find soothing.
  • Use a larger bag to pack essentials, water, and a snack. Compartmentalize any other packing, grouping like items together, for quick access to what you need if you are away from home.
  • Nest. Create a cozy space where you can snuggle under a blanket and read or just relax. A side table for a cup of hot tea or hot chocolate might be just what you need at the end of the day.
  • Get outside every day, if possible. Nature often provides a counterbalance of peace.
  • Try something new. It might be an exercise class or knitting. Anything that keeps your mind occupied could be a relief.

When holidays hurt, implement strategies that work for you. Knowing there are things within your control might be the best help of all. 

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