…or would today’s blog be more appropriately titled, “Help! It’s the Holidays”? When Holiday promotions start showing up in the stores, when the days grow shorter, when daylight savings time ends, I am again reminded that I am approaching the time of year when I struggle to find joy.
If you have experienced loss in the past year, if the Holidays this year will be different, if celebrating sounds impossible, I am writing to you. It doesn’t have to be death. Divorce, loss of health or income, loss of home—too common along the Texas coast and throughout the country this year due to hurricanes, wildfires and floods—all tend to rob us of our joy.
Terms like “Cheers,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays”—even the angel’s proclamation that behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy—triggered anxiety attacks for years after Lev’s death, and even today I occasionally fall into a sinkhole of depression. And I am not alone. Holiday anxiety and Seasonal Affective Disorder are common among those who find ourselves suddenly, unexpectedly alone. I have shared my stories repeatedly in blogs and in my forthcoming book, RECLAIMING JOY.
Today I am approaching the subject from a different angle. There is hope for the Holidays. In 2009, the year Lev died, my fear of spending Christmas without him—just of surviving that period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s—started me on my search to reclaim joy. I came up with a plan that focused on giving thanks, and I have continued to refine that plan in the years since. Perhaps some of the steps I’ve taken will work for you and your family.
Start by Being Thankful
Claim the word thanksgiving as your mantra for the season. Make a list of everything you have to be thankful for—all the good things in your past, in addition to the good things you still have. Set aside a time each day to say Thank you, God, for…. Or keep a daily journal of your moments of joy. Try to live your life in gratitude mode.
Thank Those Who Are Meaningful to You
The simple act of saying “thank you” for every small kindness goes a long way in strengthening relationships. While I still think that the hand-written note expresses appreciation (and sympathy) best, a greeting card with a short personal note, an email, text message or phone call are all appreciated and remembered. And no one forgets the gift of homemade cookies or soup. Often we take family for granted. We expect them to be there for us when we grieve. Tell them how much their support and presence have meant to you.
That first fall as a widow, I took two major steps to make my Holidays better. I had a Sunday evening open house in November to say thanks to all those who had reached out to me. The party also let friends know that I was ready to go out socially. We had always sent Christmas cards, but I was not able to say “Merry Christmas!” Instead, I sent Thanksgiving cards. They were a way to write personal notes, to notify out-of-town friends of Lev’s death and to avoid Christmas cards addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.”
Plan Early for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
Don’t sit back and react to whatever comes your way. If you were the person who always hosted the big Holiday get-togethers, let your family and friends know what you want this year. They may need to work together to make it happen for you.
Pull out your calendar. Don’t overschedule yourself. Look for ways to continue traditions that have always brought you pleasure. Try to include a moment…or hour…of joy each day. Spread out the unpleasant tasks that must be done to avoid excessive stress.
I decorated my home, put up a tree and had two small parties that first Christmas. I avoided bright red and cheerful Santas in favor of evergreens, angels and white poinsettias. Decorating the tree turned out to be a wonderfully nostalgic experience. Instead of being sad as I expected, I was flooded with warm, fuzzy memories of Christmases past. I invited close friends to dinner to celebrate some December birthdays, and I invited my few single friends over for a simple Sunday night supper.
Being alone as a couple on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day is shockingly different from being alone as a single, whether widowed or divorced. When we are a couple, we blithely say, “Christmas is whenever we are all together”—it doesn’t matter which day we celebrate. When I am alone (and thankfully, I have never been alone more than a few hours on THE day, thanks to my children and their spouses), I am truly alone. Almost everything is closed, and it feels like all the rest of the world is celebrating with family. To go out to eat or to a movie is simply to be reminded of my aloneness. It is the very loneliest of days.
And no matter how we observe Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are too keenly aware of the empty chair to celebrate. In the words of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: The absence of that presence is everywhere. Too often in those early years, I found myself a sad observer of others’ celebrations.
It has taken years; but my daughter, daughter-in-law and I have learned to start talking early to see what works for everyone. It is very complicated, especially when families are scattered, with long distances in between. Now that the grandchildren are reaching adulthood, in their jobs and married, it’s even more complicated. My daughter-in-law usually hosts her large family for either Christmas or Thanksgiving each year. The married grandsons share time with their in-laws. They may be working on Christmas Eve or the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas. My son-in-law’s family—in still another location—also has married grandchildren. There are not enough hours in the Holidays to avoid every conflict.
I have to accept the painful fact that I can’t have the perfect Christmas of my memories, with everyone gathered around my tree and table. My children realize that they can’t make me happy, that what I want isn’t an option. I began to find happiness when I accepted that reality.
Look for Ways to Give
Gratitude leads to generosity. Look for ways to delight your family and friends. Find someone whose situation is tougher than yours and brighten their day. Visit a friend in the hospital. Invite other suddenly singles over for wine and cheese or coffee and dessert. If you will be alone on Thanksgiving or Christmas, volunteer to serve dinner at a homeless shelter. Joy comes when we focus on others instead of ourselves.
I still love all the old rituals of Christmas: cooking; entertaining; shopping for, wrapping and giving Christmas presents to those I love. I love to share my home with family and friends. All the preparations keep me busy all December, and my life is full of anticipation. I reclaimed my Christmas joy when I let go of the past and started celebrating all that is good in my life.
Somehow, Holidays has been politicized, but I like the inclusiveness of the word. It covers every holiday from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and I want my writing to speak to those from different faith traditions who celebrate different Holy Days.
Previous blogs on my pre-Holiday anxiety include:
Photos were taken at Wisteria, Inwood Village, Dallas.
RECLAIMING JOY is scheduled for publication in 2018 by the Baylor University Press.