< Human Potential Articles < Managing the Holidays
Managing the Holidays
by Jerry Rothman, MSW, PhD
Holidays Can Be Difficult
No matter what your religion or lack thereof, the holiday time can be most trying. The holidays stir up
memories of the past, evoke powerful feelings, and force us to compare our life situation to that of the
perfect family portrayed on television.
Memories of the past are tied to this time of year. Many people have traditions which are
sanctioned by religion,
but many also have traditions which are more secular in nature. The gift giving, the taking of vacations, the sharing
of special times or activities -- may have been part of the joy that we had with a lost loved one. Getting through
the first season can nightmarish and the next ones may be a bit more moderate, but still quite
All of these memories of good times and rituals shared together may raise bittersweet
thoughts and feelings.
Not only good times shared, but bad times shared may be dredged up. If we are like many people,
the holidays may have been unpleasant for economic or emotional reasons. In this case, we may feel guilty
that we couldn't have provided better for our son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother. Thus,
the holidays are times of great emotional intensity to start with, and a death
may build on this foundation and add to the feelings of loss that arise from memories.
Thus, it is not memories alone that are dredged up to haunt us, it is the
feelings that may accompany these memories, that also cause pain. Powerful
emotions are evoked by the holidays and these are added to our intensity,
generated by our loss. We may experience a whole range of feelings which
are hard for us to tolerate. Sadness is difficult enough, but loneliness,
emptiness, helplessness and vulnerability are even harder to manage. Given
the stereotype of the American character, these emotions are almost opposite and
often considered negative in our society.
Another reason that the holidays can be disappointing is that we are bombarded
with stereotypes of the perfect family, experiencing nothing but joy and warmth
on a white Christmas. This myth has been commercialized and used to sell
merchandise in mass quantities. It is therefore a force to be reckoned
with and one that we can't escape. We are made to compare the reality of
our loss-filled family life with the myth of perfect family closeness that we
see on television. This painful comparison is often unsatisfactory to even
healthy families, but families who have sustained losses are even further from
What to Do
There are a good many ways to facilitate getting through difficult periods of time.
Although first, it's important to have a mind set that you are not helpless.
We may feel helpless and hopeless, but that doesn't mean we really are.
Once you get it firmly established that you can do some things to make life more
bearable, then you can get busy and implement some of the following suggestions.
First, express the feelings as they arise. It's not only OK to grieve, but
it is important to grieve. Grief is a process that may be painful, but it
has healing qualities. So tolerate the difficult emotions and express them
to yourself and others. Anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness,
vulnerability, helplessness, emptiness and others may all be present. The
mourning process can be very painful because of the intensity and range of
feelings that arise. It is healthier to let them be and not try to sweep
them under the rug.
Having said this, it is also important to modify the statement by adding that
it's not OK to express these feelings in a way that harms yourself or others.
It isn't the feelings themselves that can cause damage; it's what we do with
them or how we express them that needs to be monitored. In doing so, be
aware of the burden you place on others. You can't ask people to help you
beyond their own ability to tolerate feelings. Thus, we can't expect
friends and relatives to be continuously receptive. We have to be aware of
their limits. There is no point in being bitter, if they simply can't keep
listening and absorbing your grief. Ask from them only what they can give
or you may be sorely disappointed.
Another way you can help yourself through the holidays is to honor the memory of
your loved one. Acknowledge their importance to you and make up ceremonies
that express that awareness. Through thoughts, feelings, traditions and
ceremonies you can express some of the grief that you feel and gain some
comfort. Rituals may be easier for some of your friends to share, so make
use of them. Or you may find comfort in developing new traditions
that honor the memory of your loved one. A contribution to charity, a day
of volunteering in honor of your memories, or a visit to the grave may have some
use to you.
Planning activities and ways to stay busy or keep from being too busy, can give you
the right mixture of activity and freedom from unnecessary stress. You can
review your own needs and decide how to plan. If you can't stand the idea
of being alone, you could plan activities with others. If you find being
alone valuable and your holiday season is usually set at a frantic pace with
social obligations, you could reconsider and cancel some of the get-togethers.
Find a way to soothe yourself. When under stress, we need to be willing to
indulge ourselves sometimes. We each have differing ways to calm our
troubled souls. Think about what you have historically done to take care
of yourself. Go ahead and give in to some soothing activities as long as
they aren't destructive to self or others. For example, if eating is a
significant soother, then you may want to let yourself gain a few pounds over
the holidays and take off the weight afterwards when the emotional strains are
moderated. However, if you have a weight problem, you may find it harmful
to your self-esteem to gain weight. You'll have to balance the pro's and
con's of each method of soothing.
Other Ideas To Think About
First, it is necessary to get beyond the myth of a blissful, perfect holiday season. We
have to realize that many people are unhappy during this time and they are
unhappy for many different reasons. Grief and sadness may intervene and
need to be attended to. This isn't unusual or bad. So accept what is
for you and deal with it; avoid denying what's going on and you'll be able to
use the above techniques to cope.
Another useful idea is that we need to express as much emotion as we can
tolerate without becoming overwhelmed. So, on the one hand, it is
important to express and explore our emotions rather than avoid becoming aware
of them. While on the other hand, we have to use some soothing techniques
to help us manage so that we don't totally lose our balance. Too much
flooding with feelings can destroy our equilibrium. So find the balance
that fits for you and express whatever you can, while also being kind to
yourself through using your own unique soothers.
An additional significant idea is that you have to individualize all of the
advice you get. That is, there are no correct formulas for managing in
difficult times. Look at the ways you function as an individual and tailor
all of the friendly and professional advise so that it fits your situation and
your needs. Don't sacrifice your uniqueness to a formula or to what
someone else claims to be the right way.
You might consider another concept that can be helpful. Being said is
often confused with being depressed. There are some quick concepts that
help differentiate. Sadness is not the same as depression. And being
sad won't make you depressed. Here are some comparisons:
Can be shared with others
Periods of energy
Light at the end of the tunnel
Is isolating, withdrawn
Little or no sense of humor
No hope, pessimistic
There is another dualism that should be explored. Useful, purposeful action around
planning satisfying activities is different from driven, frenzied action, which
we might conveniently call hyperactivity:
Use of intelligence
Mindful of our needs
Feelings are expressed
Unconscious, unthought out
Symbolic or unaware
Feelings are avoided; actions take their place
The holidays may not be a time of perfect bliss and your true feelings may be quite
different from the mythology that commercial television and the media portray. Give
yourself some leeway to be yourself and to accept whatever your feelings tell
you. In fact, the holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of
the year for mourners and for many other folks. However, you can
understand and act, so that you are not helpless, and you can creatively cope
with whatever the season brings to you. While no one enjoys pain, you can
take this opportunity to face your troubles and to work on them in a way that
can be creative and meaningful.