Christmas really can be a wonderful time of year. It?s a time when families and friends make the time to reconnect, our homes and streets are decorated with lights and greenery and people pause to remember to help others in need. It of course, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who brings hope and peace to a lost world.
However, as a marriage and family therapist, I also am aware that Christmas can be an incredibly painful time for many. We must be careful not to minimize the pain this season brings some people. Firstly, there are relationship stressors that seem to just jump off the page this time of year. Whether it is watching Christmas movies of perfect families when you?re struggling to stay in an unhappy marriage or sitting around the table eating turkey with people (family) that you?d rather not be around ? the unreasonable pressure for Christmas to be "perfect? can make the season less than bright.
Secondly, grief at Christmas time is so very real, conjuring up many memories. Christmas, like no other holiday is about family and sharing. A little like salt on the wound, knowing that it?s Christmas once again reminds us that there is an empty place setting. Who will carve the turkey now that dad is not here? Who will pass out the gifts? Whether our loss is experienced through death, divorce, distance or dementia ? the gap in our lives is felt.
If you are experiencing grief or loss this season, here is a little help.
- Allow yourself to be sad. Sometimes we feel guilty for grieving. We don?t want to "bum? everyone else out on a day that is meant to be happy. If you have been the primary joy-maker, baker, decorator for past Christmas times, this is especially difficult; You carry pressure to make the day perfect ? when all you want to do is cry. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. It is totally normal.
- Adjust your expectations. If you have lost a significant loved one, it is going to take a long time for your Christmas to feel "normal? again. Accept and expect that this will be a process and communicate this to your loved ones.
- Keep it Simple. In the words of columnist, Stacie Ruth Stoelting in her column, Coping with Grief at Christmas, "Take a hands off and hands folded approach to the holidays. Reduce activity, increase prayer and companionship.? After losing her husband, one woman who was an avid baker, stopped baking all together during the holidays. The activity just reminded her of her loss. As a result, her kids took up the activity and even now years later; her daughters repeat their parent?s favourite recipes. Don?t feel guilty if you don?t send Christmas cards, have a huge meal or even put a tree, keeping things simple will help you manage your grief.
- Forgive. Often times when we lose a loved one there is unfinished "relationship? business that we now feel helpless to deal with. You may wish you said and did things ? but it is too late. The only way to let these feelings go is to forgive. Writing a letter to your loved one or speaking with a counsellor is a very helpful way of finalizing this act of forgiveness and freeing yourself from hurt feelings and regrets. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves too!
- Diet and Rest. Watching what you eat is very important during the holidays. Over eating and experiencing sugar highs and lows are great ways of feeding depression. Be mindful of what you are taking in and how much sleep you are getting ? especially when you?re already feeling vulnerable.
- Marking the loss. When we lose someone it is so hard to see life just carry on without him or her. We can actually feel guilty for enjoying ourselves. Find an outlet to make a tribute to the person you?ve lost. Many churches and funeral homes have special services during the holidays that allow people to celebrate the life of someone they have lost. Whether it is hanging a Christmas wreath on a grave site, writing a letter or memorial, making a yearly donation in their name or posting a tribute online, acknowledging your loss is important.
- Reach out. This advice is two sided. One, reach out and receive support for yourself. Secondly, reach out to others. This is the season for serving the hurting. Helping at a soup kitchen, singing at a nursing home or taking clothes to a woman?s shelter is a lot more uplifting than sitting at home feeling alone ? for you and for others. It might even become a new tradition that you cherish.
- Talk about the good times. Often when someone loses a partner or a child, we try to protect that person by not talking about the one they lost. Instead, it helps to laugh and remember the funny stories and the good times. These memories can be very comforting.
- Reclaim Your Purpose. When we lose someone we love- especially if we were their caregiver ? we find it hard to remember why we were left behind. You may need help to find that focus again and to remember you are important and here for a reason.
Wishing you a wonderful Christmas Season and New Year!
Principles for Real Living:
I am responsible for my own attitude
My attitude affects my actions
I can not change others, but I can influence others
My emotions do not control my actions
Admitting my imperfections does not mean that I'm a failure
Love is the most powerful weapon for good in the world
Desperate Marriages by Gary Chapman, Northfield Publishing, Chicago 1998, 2008