Surviving the holidays seems impossible when your life is falling apart. (Spoiler alert: you can do it. Keep reading and you'll see how we made it through too.)
Maybe you're grieving the loss of a loved one. Maybe your marriage is on the rocks, or one of your children is troubled. Your career or finances might be hanging by a thread. All these things bring grief. And grief is grief. No matter the source.
Waves come when you least expect. Nine years after LJ died I had a meltdown on the floor at Hobby Lobby because I couldn't find six matching stocking hangers. Everything came in sets of four or five... but not six.
It came on like a panic - I could feel my heart rate skyrocket and my face get hot. And I couldn't stop it from coming. I was on my belly, face down, reaching for the back of the bottom shelves, when I finally just put my head down and cried. People were sweet, mostly... scared, probably, but compassionate. I pulled myself together, abandoned my cart, and left.
There is no rhyme or reason for how grief manifests itself during "the holidays."
Surviving the holidays minute by minute
If you're approaching the holidays with a feeling of heaviness, anxiety, dread, or even despair, sentiments of "joy" or "merry" or "calm and bright" or even basic gratitude might be too much to hope for. My prayer is that you will find simple pockets or even just tiny flickers of peace and comfort. A good meal, a conversation with a friend, a book or song that speaks your heart.
Those moments are treasures, like delicate shells to collect in your pocket. Because the only thing that makes the anger and pain you're feeling even more distressing is the knowledge that the holidays are coming. I remember starting to drown in the anxiety that I was going to have to swim in a sea of happy people when I was still such a wreck.
Why surviving the holidays seems impossible when you're grieving
Entering the holiday season in grief is just about as hard as the loss you're grieving in the first place. Regardless of the source of your grief, the holidays only magnify the pain grief brings. What should be such a happy season just isn't happy at all.
You wish you could close your eyes and wake up on January 2nd. Skip it all. Even the New Year, which feels ridiculous because the idea of a "fresh start" is insulting after your whole life has been upended. If only a snap of your fingers could make it all go away: grief, frustration, confusion, Santa, the mall, the Salvation Army bell ringers, picture-perfect family photos, the Hallmark movie channel, and the blowups on your neighbors' lawn. Everywhere you look are reminders that the world has moved on... and you're still stuck in sadness or anger.
It's the most terrible time of the year
We had a rough Christmas once, more than normal. Sadly, this one was even more awful than the year our son died. This particular season was just weeks after our marriage detonated. We both approached the holidays with heaping piles of disappointment, anger, resentment, and fear.
Neither one of us was able to admit it to the other, but I know we were both terrified it would be our last Thanksgiving and Christmas together under one roof. So surviving the holidays was especially critical, and doubly hard. I was mortified to face his family, just as mortified as he was to face mine. I was positive I was going to become a fold-over in the annual family Thanksgiving picture. True story. I think by chance I wound up on the far corner of the group in the photo… I’m sure I manifested that for myself. (As far as I know, I didn’t get cut out!)
Make the holidays exactly what you need them to be
It was more important that year than ever before for us to create some special memories as “just us.” We had to set some boundaries that season that confused and likely disappointed our families. It was uncomfortable, and in many ways it probably would have been easier to just “do what we’ve always done.” But that’s not what we needed that year, and I’m grateful we had the courage and determination to chart our holiday course differently.
Surviving those holidays meant getting creative. We intentionally established a new Christmas Day tradition in our home. I knew after a full day of Christmas Eve services at church I would be exhausted, and trying to haul everyone out of the house with gifts and merriment strapped on would push me over the edge. So, we didn’t. And it is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made for our little family. We stayed in our jammies, made memories and food together, and stayed present to enjoy what we truly thought was going to be our last Christmas together. Tragically, if that had been true, it would have been our only Christmas together prepared and enjoyed with that much intention.
For more help on repairing your marriage, especially during the holidays, click here.
I keep that Christmas in mind whenever I start feeling anxious about what each holiday is going to look like this time around.
Things I learned from surviving that sweet and special Christmas:
The people who love you most will still love you.
They will still love you even if you change all the plans and move all their cheese. They will get over it. Grit your teeth and wait them out!
Creating your own traditions is priceless.
These are memories you'll have forever. If this isn't the year for traditions, go do or try something you'd never otherwise do. Being together is the whole point. Screw "normal." There's no normal right now anyway.
Give your children the gift of present and loving parents on holidays.
You can’t do that if you’re stressed to hell. A wonderful funny friend of ours said, and I quote: “We don’t want our kids to think we suck at holidays.” Our children really don’t want as much stuff as we think they do. They just want us.
Cook – or cater – a fantastic meal.
We ordered a gorgeous prime rib, prayed we wouldn’t screw it up, and enjoyed the most incredible Christmas dinner. One of my best memories of all time is sitting with Jack at the table after the kids had scampered off to play with their new toys. With full bellies, and no run-around-town stress that day, conversation opened up that brought us some peace. We were still a long way from reconciled then but I treasure that evening spent together with our guards lowered. Magic really can happen over a great meal.
Here are some easy ice-breakers if your relationship is so strained you don't know where to start.
Thoughtful gifts don’t have to be expensive.
Maxing yourself out financially only adds to your stress and mental garbage. There are countless ways to say I love you that don't cost a penny.
But JUST SAY NO to anything that doesn’t bring you absolute peace and presence this season.
Dragging yourself to and through obligations is a recipe for self-implosion. Saying no is harder for some people than others. If that’s you, go back and read #1.
It’s exhausting to stand on principle or try to punish or hurt someone you love on a holiday.
Stick a pin in the feud; you can always come back to it later. Be kind to each other, if for no other reason than to give yourself the gift of putting down the heavy weight of anger for just one day.
Don't make any big decisions
Your emotions, stress, fatigue, and blood pressure are all at DEFCON 5. This is not the time to decide to split up, move out, quit your job, go skydiving, or get a tattoo or a puppy. Those are all valid ideas that can wait until January. That's when you'll think a little straighter and make better, more rational choices.
When you’re hurting, it’s time to circle the wagons, hunker down, and put your needs and the needs of your nuclear family first.
This doesn’t mean shutting people out. It simply means budgeting your time and energy so that you can give your most important people the best of yourself. They deserve more than our "leftovers."
Take pictures only if you want to.
If someone else really needs a picture, suck it up and pose, while repeating to yourself you never have to look at the photo if you don’t want to. Especially if it’s a painful reminder of a painful time. You DO have every right to request that it not appear on social media.
Speaking of social media, STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA.
You can “like” everybody else’s “perfect family pictures” another day. I say "perfect" because I promise you, they yelled at each other trying to get the perfect outfits or the perfect location or the perfect shot. And one of the kids probably got threatened within an inch of his life for acting exactly like a kid forced to take pictures in itchy new clothes would act. When our marriage fell apart, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, "we just had no idea anything was wrong." (It would have paid for all the therapy!) WE were that perfect family on social media. Proof that you never truly know what's going on behind the scenes.
Holidays are not going to magically make pain or struggle disappear.
But you can find moments of peace and glimpses of goodness if you’re willing to look for them.
Surviving the holidays when you're a mess means simply making it through. And once you've done it, you'll breath a sigh of relief. And you might even have a glimmer of hope and gratitude. (It's okay if you don't, though. Some years, surviving the holidays is the very best you can do. We are meant to thrive in the right time, and that time will come. Just not right now.)
All this being said, if you do feel up to making merry this Christmas in spite of your grief, let your people love you the way they know how. This means they will feed you and hug you and make you take uncomfortable family pictures. And even if you stand on the far back corner of the group, I promise they won’t fold you over.
PS: This will help you survive the holidays!
My new book, Joy Comes in the Mourning, releases Thursday, and it's that kind of book that might bring you a flicker of peace in a difficult season. It's a raw and real look at the grieving process, no matter your loss or struggle, and will bring you the reassurance that what you're thinking and feeling is okay. I found the brightest light on my life's darkest path. And it's my joy to share what I've learned along the way. Check back here and our social channels on Thursday for where to find the book, and for more help on grief and the holidays.