Along with the pressure to shop ’til we drop, the winter holidays arrive with a long list of high expectations – and sometimes, a pair of unexpected guests named grief and loss.
All those sentimental TV commercials promoting family unity seem downright cruel to anyone mourning a death in the family, a divorce, or a job loss. Toss in the seasonal temptation to overindulge in rich food and alcohol, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for the holiday blues.
Even the happiest changes in a family’s structure – including the marriage of a grown child – can rearrange how and where we observe our holidays. Maybe your daughter is flying out of town to celebrate with her college boyfriend and his family.
Or your own parents decided to trade their white Christmas in Detroit for a festive week at their condo in Miami.
“As we age, our holiday experiences naturally change,” says Dr. Kathy McCoy, a psychotherapist and author who covers a variety of lifestyle issues on her blog, Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond.
“Midlife changes can bring a tinge of sadness to our holidays as our children grow up and move on, and our parents grow frail and die,” says McCoy, whose 66-year-old parents died four months apart when she was 35. “We begin to see the holidays through a prism of longing for times past and for people no longer at our holiday gatherings.”
Ghosts of holidays past
My own father died of a heart attack when I was 38 and my only child was 6. The Christmas season arrived five months later, leaving me soaked in a puddle of tears every time I heard Dad’s favorite carols on the radio.
Despite my son’s enthusiasm, I struggled to find the energy to shop for pre-packaged Christmas cookie dough, and barely managed our family’s more labor-intensive holiday obligations.
So how do we cope with waves of sorrow while everyone else is making merry? Is it possible to rekindle feelings of joy and gratitude?
McCoy suggests focusing on the good times we’ve recently shared with special people, including close friends, rather than dwelling on the past.
That’s not to say we can’t enjoy familiar traditions that comfort us, whether we opt to serve our grandmother’s eggnog recipe or decorate a tree with keepsake ornaments.
Muddling through my first Christmas without Dad, I didn’t try to hide my grief from my son. But it was my turn to be a grown-up. And so, just as my parents did for me years ago, I read a story aloud to him on Christmas Eve, then watched the night sky to track Santa’s journey.
Honor the old, ring in the new
Grief therapists advise us to take on only the tasks and traditions we can handle while adjusting to loss or change. Keeping it simple is key – along with making time for rest and self-care.
We don’t have to send Christmas cards or festoon the entire house with twinkle lights. And we can pass on hosting the annual holiday open house if it doesn’t feel right this year.
“It also helps to be open to new experiences and people during the holidays,” McCoy adds. “Everything won’t be the same, but just might be wonderful in its own way.”
Both of my parents are gone now. I still miss them most at Christmastime, when cornball movie classics stir old memories and tug unmercifully on my heartstrings. But as Dr. McCoy suggests, I keep reshaping our holiday rituals and traditions, just as I keep redefining my role in our family.
This December, for instance, our holiday comes full circle. My first grandchild, a boy, is due at the end of the month – and suddenly I find myself believing in a glimmer of Christmas magic again.