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When the Holidays Aren't So Merry and Bright - How to Cope and Heal

It happens every year.  The days get shorter, the nights get longer, and the air gets colder.  The leaves have fallen from the trees, and the remaining branches look stark and lifeless against a chilly grey sky.  You brace yourself for yet another icy winter, pulling out the sweaters, mittens, and long underwear.  

And some years, the temperature on the inside is even colder and bleaker, as you weather the intensified impact of your own sorrow - standing in stark contrast to the bright holiday cheer accumulating around you.  You might be grieving someone who won't be with you this holiday season.  You might find yourself painfully alone, trying bravely to cope in the midst of all the laughter and parties swirling around you - but feeling more despondent and cut off than ever.    

The holidays are hard, for those that hurt.   Grief, sorrow, disappointment, loss, and transition are all amplified, in a season when everyone is supposed to be feeling merriment, connection, and joy.  How can you cope with that intensified pain, during this wintry holiday season?   How can you get through it - and move on to the new year with renewed comfort, direction, and hope?

Remembering My Worst Holiday Season Ever

These are questions I faced personally a few years ago, after the unexpected death of my youngest child.   I had been told that the holidays would be the hardest time for me, during my grieving process.   But even those wise warnings were not enough to prepare me for the intensity of pain I experienced during those weeks of festive gatherings and celebrations.   

Trying to put on a happy holiday face, while my heart was breaking, was nothing short of agonizing.   It was everything I could do to even show up to required parties and gatherings - and even then, sometimes I would need to retreat and find a quiet place to cry alone in the midst of those cheery jingle-bell environments.  

At Thanksgiving, in the midst of all that celebrated abundance and gratitude, I felt deprived and solitary.   During Christmas, that luminous season of "Joy to the World" and "Peace on Earth," joy and peace were the farthest thing from my own mind and heart, and the contrast and irony of that harsh reality felt almost crushing.  Over New Year's, that season of letting the old year go and welcoming the new, that cheery "Auld Lang Syne" felt nothing short of excruciating.  To think that I had another whole year ahead to face life without my child was almost more than I could bear.  

That hard holiday season for me was 18 years ago this year. Yet I vividly remember the pain, the aloneness, the despair and agony that I felt, during the cold grey days and dark cloudy nights of that heartbreakingly difficult time. 

So My Heart Goes Out to You

So this year, if you're one of those many solitary souls bearing your own private pain in the midst of the holidays, know that you're not alone.   I have been there.  Most of us have been there, in some way or other, at some time or other.   Maybe, like me, you experienced the death of someone you loved.   Maybe - perhaps even worse - your loved one isn't dead, but is essentially dead to you (through divorce, separation, or other circumstances) - and they're off enjoying the holidays with someone else, while you're sitting home alone missing them.  

Maybe you're going through a painful transition, adjusting to new circumstances - a move, a graduation, a new baby's arrival, or the recent departure of your kids from home, leaving you to face the agonizing quiet of that newly empty nest.  Maybe the person you thought would be the love of your life ended up moving on to a newer love interest, leaving you to face the holidays unexpectedly alone.   Maybe you're homeless, disabled, or down on your luck - or even incarcerated. 

Whatever your particular pain - whatever your unique and challenging circumstance - my heart goes out to you.  I have personally walked the path of pain over the holidays.   And I'm pretty sure I'll do it yet again, at some point in my life - because we all do.    When it's your turn to face a difficult holiday season, here are some thoughts that might help.

Some Coping Strategies, to Help Get You Through 

Here are some suggestions that might be useful to you, to help you weather the wintry storm of a difficult holiday season:

  • Look for the Good Things:  Even on your worst and most devastating day, if you look hard enough, you can find something positive to enjoy.   Start keeping a gratitude journal, writing down at least 3 positive things each day that you can be thankful for.  Even when you're hurting, this simple action can help relieve your burden, and brighten your perspective.
  • Enjoy the Season, in the More Soulful Way.   Your pain can be an important teacher, expanding your mind and stretching your heart.  Spend time journaling, reading, looking at Christmas lights, and listening to insightful music.  Let yourself think deep thoughts, and feel intense feelings.  Let yourself cry through your legitimate pain.  When you're going through something like this, the only way out is through.  So give yourself permission to feel what you feel, and to be where you are emotionally - at least for a few minutes a day.   
  • Put Clear Boundaries on Your Grieving Time. As a caveat - If your're not careful, your pain can take over your life - which is not a good thing!  So set clear boundaries on your deep-feeling soul work.  Set aside 10-30 minutes a day to journal, cry, hug teddy bears, look at old photos, or whatever else you need to do to get through your pain for that day. When that daily time is up, consciously redirect yourself into some present-moment, positive activity, until your scheduled "working through" time the next day. In this way, you can get through your pain - but not get swallowed up in it, or be overwhelmed by it.
  • Take Good Care of Yourself, and Bypass the Holiday Junk.  When you're feeling down, you won't generally be inclined to exercise, eat healthy, or sleep.  But those simple self-care behaviors are essential for your emotional as well as physical health.  Don't fall into the trap of consuming mounds of holiday sweets, which can only intensify your post-holiday crash.  Be kind to your body.  Take good care of it, and it will help take good care of you.
  • Reach Out in Kindness to Someone Hurting Even Worse Than You.  Your pain can be an important educator, opening your eyes to the many other people around you who are hurting too. Find at least one other person even less fortunate than you, that you can extend some relief and kindness to.  It might be a needed meal, a warm greeting, a kindly visit, or a thoughtful gift or card.  Let your own broken heart help you see and respond to the broken hearts of others.  Resist the temptation to simply pull permanently inward.  Extend your love and caring outward - and you will be amazed how the benefit descends on you, as well as to the person you're reaching out to. 
  • Remember - This Too Shall Pass.. Always remember - this hard moment only belongs to this day, this time, this season. Breathe deep, gather your strength, and get through it.  Just a few days from now, the holidays will be over, for a whole year.   Then you'll have a whole year to heal, plan, and prepare, before facing next year's round of holiday challenges.   For today, don't worry about tomorrow.  Build a happy, productive today - and that will lead to a vibrant stream of happier tomorrows. 

By following these simple suggestions, you can get through your holiday funk, and be ready to proceed onward to a fresh new year, with renewed purpose, energy, and hope.  


HappinessToolkit book thumbnail-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW 
     Counselor, Speaker, Performer, and Author of
     Your Happiness Toolkit: 16 Strategies for Overcoming Depression, and Building a Joyful, Fulfilling Life

   > For more complete Information on this topic,  see the book,  Tool #16:
"Healing: Repair Old Wounds, and Move on with Joy"