In a perfect world, the holidays offer the best of times filled with warmth and companionship. We luxuriate in the love of those who mean everything to us. When a loss occurs, not only are celebratory patterns threatened, but suddenly it becomes painful to negotiate a regular day. Facing a holiday period, necessarily rife with emotion and memories, can be dismaying and depressing. It is not uncommon to feel anxious as you approach significant milestones without your loved one.
Loss is a fact of life. We lose insignificant things all the time: Money, a favorite ring, or a house key. These interruptions to our routine become more aggravating than they should be and it is almost strange how upset we can become over the loss of an inanimate object. When we endure transformative losses they become damaging subtractions to our well-being. The forfeiture of a home, death and divorce are the changes that can impact the rest of your life. Any woman who is a breast cancer survivor knows what it’s like to see a surgical scar from biopsies, lumpectomies or mastectomies. I have seven biopsy scars and one lumpectomy scar, but the only one that made me weep was the Frankenstein-like thyroidectomy scar across my neck. It was wide and because muscle tissue was removed along with a cancerous thyroid, the scar was uneven and jagged. I felt ugly. People cope with far more, like the loss of a limb that is completely obvious to the world and gives meaning to the term life-changing.
Loss of a person we love signifies searing pain, unhappiness and suffering like no other. Distress brings the present into sharp focus, and our difficult job is to fashion a way past our agony. When an unwanted loss is thrust upon us, whether it is death, abandonment, or a health crisis, we are stopped abruptly in mid-stride. The windows to the world are shuttered and we close down. I’m not suggesting that the following clues will eliminate discomfort, but they may inspire a sense of control and perhaps a partially positive path through the days to come.
- Give Yourself a Lot of Wiggle Room
Try not to be hard on yourself. Intentionally lower your expectations for what you “ought” to be doing and take the word “should” out of your vocabulary for the time being. If someone invites you to a party, initially you are likely relieved to have a plan for New Year’s Eve. Yet the hour before the party you simply cannot get out of bed. Give yourself permission to stay home. Acknowledge that at this time your own moods will be vulnerable and volatile. Perhaps create some “back-up” plans for when you suddenly feel incapable of leaving the house. Stock up on favorite foods. Make sure you have access to much loved movies and make a list of what to watch in decadent binge sessions. Buy a set of luscious pajamas so that if you are in them all day, you feel comforted and pretty. And finally, treat yourself as you would a toddler in your care; with tenderness and understanding. Give yourself permission to be needy for a while and stay in constant touch with friends and family members (made easier via our smart phones).
- Create At Least One New Tradition
In the middle of grieving, some people cling to preservation of routine and want everything to remain the same. Familiarity surrounds you like a warm blanket and gives much needed structure. Others cannot bear favorite music or to hang special ornaments on a tree without breaking down. Even the thought of having a Christmas tree might be beyond what you can manage this year. On November 4, my first husband left me. I panicked at facing Thanksgiving and Christmas that year. The thought of New Year’s Eve made me literally nauseated. My feeble solution was to ask my neighbor to help me bring a fresh pine tree home from a lot. Next I invited my family over for a hearty soup and bread slathered in honey butter, topped off with tree decorating and hot chocolate. Honestly it was not a cheerful gathering despite the Christmas music that I stubbornly played, but the goal was to change my routine and I succeeded!
- Consider Working on a Holiday
Many professions do not stop for celebratory days. If you work at the type of business that is open even through major holidays, consider accepting extra hours in order to be fully occupied for the bulk of the day or night. You will interact with your fellow workers and the population that you serve. On Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day, it can be useful to recall that not everyone in your city is having an ideal day. There is a new mother home from the hospital with a tiny infant; locked into a demanding routine with no time to take a shower. There could be a young couple in town with no family, taking a hike through a local state park and eating out in a restaurant instead of joining their extended family and sampling family favorites. Be realistic about the fact that you are not the only person in an uncomfortable circumstance.
It is thought that doing “good” for others is one of those factors that contributes to a longer life. Reaching outside of yourself can be a way to distract from your own discomfort for a while.
Take a note from Bill Gates: “You may have heard of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. There’s another day you might want to know about: Giving Tuesday. The idea is pretty straightforward. On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, shoppers take a break from their gift-buying and donate what they can to charity.”
Take the opportunity to participate in an organized event for your city’s homeless population or a church holiday meal. These are concrete ways to fill a potentially lonely day. Volunteer early because these types of events are extremely popular. It turns out that there are many people who crave a meaningful way to fill these high expectation days on their calendar.
Simply recognize that your loss will be painful no matter what you do. When those feelings rush at you like a tsunami, stand firm and allow the water of powerful emotions to flood over you. You may not imagine survival. But you do endure. You breathe. You put one foot in front of the other and you continue. My mother was not a warm and nurturing type. After my husband left me I was sobbing about the approaching Christmas holidays. She told me to buck up; “After all,” she spat out, “It’s just a date on the calendar!” While not the sort of encouragement and soothing I wanted, I later mused about her abrupt and harsh take on my situation. I was in agony, but through my pain I still could recognize that in some ways she was correct. These much fretted over traditional holidays are simply days. They have a sunrise and a sunset. They cannot harm you and perhaps the very act of enduring them is a victory key to healing.