Ah, the ‘holidays.’ It’s the time of year when the whole world is expected to be joyous—no matter what is happening in our lives. We’re supposed to have a magical ability to forget all of our hardships and recreate our sweetest childhood memories for the entire month of December. (What a load of you know what!) Let’s face it: it can be tough for reality to live up to such weighty expectations—for anyone. The challenge is made tougher when you are grieving: whether you are missing someone who has died, feeling the impact of life’s inevitable transitions, or anything else.
What’s the answer? How can you be ‘real’ while finding a way to make the season meaningful for you? While I’m certainly not the world’s best role model, I have been around the block a few times. Here are a few ideas from my own experience that may help:
Beware of social media!
One thing that can complicate our expectations of the holidays is social media. Of course, every time we look online, the images we see make everyone else’s lives seem much happier and ‘Instagrammable’ than our own. No wonder studies have linked social media to depression, anxiety, and even poor sleep! How can we possibly keep up?! The answer: we can’t. Recognize that you’re only seeing a Kodachrome moment of each person’s life (and always in full makeup, in the best possible light, and saying “cheese”!) and that their life, too, is full of challenges. Use social media as a tool to reach out and connect with friends, but don’t fall into the trap of using it to compare your life with others.
Try to avoid ‘buying’ holiday joy.
It’s wonderful to enjoy showering the people you love with gifts and splurging on family activities during the holidays. (Personally, I’m looking forward to a cruise with my kids and grandkids!) Just be sure that whatever you spend is within your budget. (You do have a budget, don’t you?) When we don’t feel like we’re living up to all those joyful holiday expectations, buying that joy can be all too tempting—especially during times of grief or change when we’re off balance. If you’re feeling that tug, consider a different approach to seeking joy. Invite your family to an excursion to the botanical garden or the beach. If you’re solo this holiday, take yourself on an adventure—to a museum, a movie, or just a tea or coffee at a great café. And when you do find yourself overspending a bit, forgive yourself and move on.
Recognize that life changes—constantly.
It can take decades to build up holiday traditions, only to have them swept away in a flash thanks to that culprit called change. It happens all the time:
- Gloria had always assumed she’d become the family matriarch, with her adoring children and grandchildren eagerly swarming to her home and her table every Christmas. Then her daughter moved to Boston and her son to London, taking the grandchildren with them. Suddenly ‘Mom’ was no longer the center of the family, and the family visits she imagined will never be a reality.
- After Shawn’s mother passed away last year, the family home was sold. Without the sprawling house where they gathered to celebrate, to spin the dreidel and light the candles for decades gone by, they are struggling to find a way to reinvent their Chanukah get-togethers.
- When Maria’s husband died suddenly this year, she found herself struggling not only with becoming a widow but also with the pressure from friends and family to keep the holidays ‘happy’ for herself and her 20-year-old son. She told me she’s “not ready” for parties and the usual routine, but she isn’t sure how to move forward.
Change and loss are hard. Pure and simple. I suppose that’s why many people, myself included, spend so much energy trying desperately to hold on to the way things used to be. A more fruitful approach is to embrace the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The pain of impermanence and loss can remind us of what it means to exist. The essence of this lesson is to accept what is—rather than what was. For me, once I was able to allow holidays-past to become a treasured memory (I left my family traditions behind kicking and screaming!), I found that I was able to enjoy the holidays—and to start creating new experiences that are meaningful to me in the here and now.
Every year, my Jewish women’s group celebrates Chanukah together. But this year, with Thanksgiving coming so late and ‘ChristmaKah’ coming at us like a freight train, we decided to postpone our annual lunch until January. Unconventional? Absolutely. But everyone I’ve spoken to about the change has breathed a sigh of relief. At least in this small way, I guess our group is ready to accept a little change, if for no other reason than to let go and relax a little. How wonderful!
As you head into the final stretch and full-blown flurry of the holidays, I hope you can find a way to sidestep the obligations and expectations and do what you can to repaint your picture of what Chanukah, Christmas, and even the dreaded New Years Eve look like for you. Embrace the now and start creating your joy—however you define it.