The holiday season has begun and many people will find this a difficult and painful time. This reaction has received more attention and awareness in recent years but is always worth revisiting. This year, those who struggle will have the added pressure of the recession. Many Americans have lost jobs or even homes making a time that emphasizes abundance and generosity even more difficult.
The holidays can always be disturbing for those dealing with loss. Christmas, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving all emphasize family, festivity, warmth and safety. New Year’s is a time of hope and optimism for the future. When real life doesn’t contain those elements the contrast between our hopes and fantasies and reality is particularly painful. Consider these examples: people who have lost a loved one through death or disease, couples who have separated or divorced or whose relationships are struggling, the many military families who fear for a loved one who is far away and in danger, people facing serious illness or financial losses. Some families struggle with estrangement from a parent, a sibling or a child. Holidays emphasize the unity and happiness of intact families making those losses harder to bear at this time of year.
December has also become the peak time for spending and shopping. Many retailers count on a major portion of their annual earnings to come at this time. Most Americans have used this time to make major purchases and look forward to sharing and exchanging gifts. For many people this will not be easy to do this year creating painful choices about whether to add more debt to already over-burdened family budgets or deal with the possible guilt or embarrassment by letting their friends and family know they are struggling financially. Parents can feel inadequate if they can’t afford to buy gifts for young children. Many small business owners have fought to keep their shops and restaurants open until the holiday season, hoping to catch up with low revenues from the rest of this difficult year: many of them will be disappointed.
So what is the best way to cope with the holidays if this is a stressful time for you? The first step is realizing that you are not the only one who does not have a picture perfect Hallmark holiday card family. Our casual friends do not reveal their painful wounds but close ones do. It is important to remember that very few people live a charmed life and escape all losses and wounds. Others share our grief and it can be helpful to confide in those to whom we feel close. Much relief can be found when another person says, ” I know just how you feel. I miss my (mother, father, brother, etc.) so much at this time of year. A lot of the appeal of social networking sites is the ability to share times of stress and receive care and support from many virtual friends in a convenient way. On line support groups such as those for divorce, cancer, and families of the mentally ill or addicted are also very helpful.
Reaching out to others we know who are suffering relieves our own burden. Be sure to contact those in your circle of friends and acquaintances who have lost loved ones in the last year or so to remind them that you are thinking of them. It is also important to let others know if you are feeling sad at this time of year. Forcing yourself to act cheerful and deny problems only adds to the burden. The more we speak to others about difficulties the more support and understanding we are likely to receive. We are also less overwhelmed by our problems when we acknowledge them openly. The harsh imperative of our culture that criticizes this as “whining” makes it harder for people to seek the kindness and support of those who care about them. What are our caring and loving relationships for, if not to provide concern, consideration and emotional comfort when we are in need? If we have established good friendships, those around us know we will be there for them when they are in need.
If your family composition is not what you hoped it would be-make your own! We can “adopt” all variety of family-mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents, siblings and children. Even people with strong family connections may be separated by distance. Celebrate the holidays with those who are near. Be a substitute yourself for a missing uncle or grandparent or son and feel free to embrace those around you who can supplement those roles for you.
For single people who are coping with the loss of a spouse or companion or those who are lonely because they have not established a close primary relationship, make the effort to connect with other singles at this time. Create your own holiday events with others who are also disconnected. For those on the other side of the equation, be sure to include your single friends in your family’s celebrations if at all possible.
A long term traditional way of helping yourself during the holidays is to help those who are less fortunate. Volunteer for a homeless shelter, provide services and comfort to the neediest in society to take a pro-active approach to your own losses. Working with others on a volunteer basis also provides opportunities to make new friends and contacts. With so many unemployed these days, time is a commodity that is abundant and can be shared in many meaningful ways.
The most essential message is to understand that loss and unhappiness are a normal part of life. With the emphasis on the good cheer of the holidays, it is easy for someone who is struggling to feel out of the mainstream; as if they have done something wrong because it is hard for them to feel happy and celebratory. You are not alone. Many others are facing difficult times. We can find meaning in holidays that celebrate renewal, rebirth and hope by looking to the future with courage to deal with our losses or struggles and hope that the New Year will bring better times for us and our loved ones.