Facing the first holiday without

Over the last month I’ve found myself going into a dark place. There are some triggers and events that started it, and it’s been hard to find a way out of this particular room now that I’ve stumbled into it.

A year ago, today, Mom was visiting me to go to the doctor the next morning. We went to lunch at a local restaurant where she didn’t eat much and then did a little shopping at a local home décor store. And the next day everything changed.

The holidays (here I am using the Western time period that includes the period from Halloween through the middle of January) are not easy. I think even for people who love them, they are hard. Extra chores, extra events, extra decorating. The fight to balance commercialism against love and faith. The forces that in general urge us to stay indoors, overeat, don’t exercise, get Vitamin D deficient.  I believe the people who cope best with the season are those who can view it as an annual celebration of family and food, faith and gifts. But that doesn’t make it easy.

This will be a hard season for me. I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with the holidays, particularly Christmas, for years. While my childhood memories are good, things started to change as I got into adulthood and started being aware of the constant, never ending stress the holidays put on our culture. When I was working at Pawsitively Clean, watching people scream at each other as they washed a dog they hadn’t looked at for the last year soured my view of the holidays. When I moved into the non-profit and then government world, watching families on the brink of annihilation focus on the material aspects of the festivities completed the curdling.

Lately I’ve been checking out some articles on the subject of coping with the holidays while grieving and/or being alone. Here are a few of my thoughts. I can’t call them tips, because I don’t know if they work. But I thought I would put them out there in case anyone else was feeling like me.

As corny and trite as it is, I’m trying to think of the holiday season as an empty jar and I get to chose the rocks I fill it up with.

De-mythologize and adjust expectations

I like this enough that I put it first on the list. The holidays come with a lot of fantasy. Mom watched Hallmark Holiday movies obsessively, bought more Christmas decorations that five households could use, and worried herself into a cranky, mal-adjusted cooking frenzy in an effort to capture the things she needed. Without children to please and with a limited family in general, I have been able to swerve away from most traditions around decorating and cooking. I have a wreath I put up and a ceramic Christmas tree. That’s enough for me.

What should the holidays be? They are not a vaccuum to be filed. They are important. Unless you are completely without religion, there is some high holy day that stands out as special and we’re expected to stop and observe. And there’s the click. The holidays are about pausing, centering, and finding the thing that is important to us.

Allow Yourself to Feel a Range of Emotions

With the base layer established, it’s time to confront the fact that it’s obviously unreasonable to expect the world to stop because it makes me sad. Advice on this comes in nice little sound bites, such as “Trust that Grief is Part of Healing” and “Focus on What You Can Control“. Yes. Thank you for the tip.

If I’m pausing, it might be unwise to fill up my time with some of the other suggestions such as “plan an outing”, “pamper yourself”, and “reach out”. If these sound good to you, go for it. I’m not suggesting they aren’t wonderful. But what I’m thinking about is finding a way to allow the feelings to be, but also putting them in perspective.

While charities bemoan the fact that many people reach out during the holidays and then go absent for the rest of the year, it strikes me that this may be the perfect season to research a charity and then pick up the phone to schedule a volunteer work adventure after the holidays have passed. And then continue the adventure for the year as part of new tradition: I miss Mom; I will honor her by serving this charity we both cared about.

Set Healthy Boundaries

My imaginary holiday jar is half full, now, and I’m starting to think about people. It’s time to decide who I want to keep in my life and who I need to find. It’s been on my mind for a while. The rush of contact that made me feel so stressed and inadequate after Mom’s diagnosis and death has passed. I’ve had enough time to start to “feel” missing certain people. I’ve also had enough time to realize some people are just irritating and need to be released.

This is harder to do than you might think. I have (blood) family that falls into both categories. Some of Mom’s friends are also on the border, though most have drifted away. (Note: I’ve also discovered a few new friends.) My own friends, never a large group, has contracted. And the hole left by Mom, my most reliable confident, has not been filed. I need to work on reaching out and connecting.

This season is too busy to expect people to add more events into their life. I’m prepared to feel lonely. On the other hand, a small party or outing might be just the way to start a new year. I’m ready to have (a few) more people in my life. I need to add something to the calendar, send out those invites, and reach out. Or just find an event that hits all my targets and say, “Yes.”

Travel

It’s mixing metaphors, but I’m adding some fun confetti to the top of my jar. For Christmas, I made a decision to “run away.” I am planning on taking a meandering trip down to Monterey to do some bird watching and sight seeing. I don’t think sitting at home feeling blue or in an essentially deserted office will help my outlook.

The last few years I have tried to cope with the holidays by taking as little time off as possible and saving up vacation time. I’m going to try to embrace that this is a period where there is naturally a pause. Travel is something I love and enjoy. It’s the perfect finish to my list.

If you’re dreading the holidays, for whatever reason, create your own “jar”. As you can see in the picture above, I’ve left somethings out. Frankly, I’ve left a lot out. Think about what you want to keep instead of missing what isn’t there.

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