The holidays are about comfort and joy, right? That wonderful Christmas tree smell. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad.” Kissing under the mistletoe!
I don’t mean to be all bah humbug. But some years, reality takes a bite out of the holiday spirit. Especially if it is the first season since you’ve gone through a relationship breakup, or are facing the holidays after a loved one’s passing.
So what are some coping strategies?
The good folks at Capital Hospice were invaluable four years ago after my mother died. In addition to counseling me and caring for my mother in her final weeks, hospice offered a free two hour “holiday bereavement” self-help session that was paradoxically extremely depressing and wonderfully liberating.
The main messages: There is no right way to get through the holidays when you are grieving. Everyone feels loss differently. Sadness can strike suddenly and unexpectedly. Holiday joy can make you feel oddly guilty. Some family members may want to start entirely new traditions, or travel far away in order to cope with loss. Others may feel it is imperative to keep every single holiday memory exactly the same.
Most of all: a holiday tinged, or flooded, with grief is an important time to be gentle with yourself and the people you love.
That advice helped me feel sad – but not too sad – during the first December without Mom. Christmas was always her favorite holiday. Every year she made it special for me and my siblings and eventually her grandchildren. To honor her, I put her favorite carol, Silent Night, on my iPod “repeat,” as I remembered the sound of her voice singing it. I put all her favorite ornaments – some she had painted herself – on my tree. I cooked her favorite holiday dishes.
And then I tried to move into the present and enjoy the day with my three kids.
This year, my family has a different loss. Last December, my husband and I told our kids we planned to divorce. We lived together for another six months, easing the transition considerably for everyone. But now the bracing reality is that, for the first time in 20 years, there is one family member who will not be with us on December 25th.
I was tempted to take the kids and flee. But it’s my 17-year-old son’s last Christmas before college. His team has a basketball tournament starting December 26th. My finances are in limbo, like every other component of my life, and I can’t afford airplane tickets for four people (or even one person) right now.
Plus somehow, running away just didn’t feel quite right.
Instead I changed small things to make this season feel slightly different – but not too different – and to make myself feel better.
I moved the Christmas tree from the left corner to the center of the living room.
I banned carols for the entire month because they sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard this year.
Best of all, close family friends with four young children joined us for Christmas dinner. They brought grandparents and apple tart. They also brought distraction, joy, and the Christmas spirit that we, as a disjointed family try to find our way together, lacked ourselves this year.
The holidays are not, after all, about having a perfect meal, giving or receiving the perfect gifts, or having a perfect family. Since 1965, Charlie Brown has been trying to tell us that the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with finding the perfect tree. Christmas itself, at its most Biblical core, is about loss. There is a seasonal reality to the holiday, with the lights of Christmas and the Menorah historically designed to illuminate the darkest month of the year.
Instead of faultless bliss and wonder, the holidays in many ways are really about acceptance, and finding peace and joy in our all too human emotions.