October through December can be an excruciating time of year for those who have experienced a loss. In addition to the death of a loved one, divorce, illness, family trauma, job loss, a wayward child, or moving to a new location can cause serious depression during the holidays. Factor in that many people experience less sunlight during the winter months, plus they stay indoors for extended periods of time, and the combination can be detrimental to our state of mind.
Living in a stepfamily for 25 years, I have definitely experienced “meltdown moments” and extreme loneliness during the holidays. However, the Christmas after my divorce was by far the worst holiday of my life. Everyone assumed I was spending the day with someone else. I already felt like a pathetic loser, and therefore, I was too embarrassed to say, “Excuse me, but I have nowhere to go for the holidays. Can I come to your house?”
Take a moment during this season of “good cheer” and ponder if there is someone you know who may be struggling. If so, here are a few practical tips to share.
• PREPARE. The ambush of emotions can attack at any time; therefore, the wisest response is to prepare beforehand. Pinpoint a time that you believe may be particularly difficult such as Christmas morning or Thanksgiving meal. Then determine a plan beforehand.
• ACCEPT. The difficulty of this time of year may be a reminder of your loss. Remember that it’s a season, and it will pass. Don’t feel guilty if your goal for the holidays this year is to “get through it.”
• SOCIALIZE. Don’t hibernate. Insecure feelings may tempt you to be isolated, but force yourself to go out, even if it’s only for a short time.
• LOWER your expectations. Movies and songs often paint a very unrealistic picture of the holidays. Most people don’t have a Norman Rockwell family; it’s okay.
• DON’T ANESTHETIZE the pain with drugs or alcohol. Numbing emotional distress with chemicals often creates more depression and anxiety. Plus you may do something you will regret.
• LEAVE THEM ALONE. If old ornaments or trimmings cause too much pain, don’t hang them this year. Put them aside for another time. Avoid fragrances, music, or locations that may trigger sadness.
• GET UP AND MOVE. Take care of your physical well-being. Healthy foods will give you strength; fattening foods and sugar can make you sluggish or worsen depression. Exercise produces natural stress reducers.
• SHOP online if going to the mall is too stressful. But watch for over-spending, as it may be a negative coping mechanism with disastrous results.
• COPING STRATEGY. Have the phone number of your counselor, church, close friend, or hotline already taped to your phone. Make the commitment to call someone if negative thoughts become intense. Seek out a support group that specializes in your loss; many of them have events targeted to ease the pain during the holidays.
• LIGHT. Get sunshine. Winter can take its toll on our emotions due to a loss of sun we experience. Take a walk during lunch if necessary.
• INVITE a new same-sex friend to see a movie, have dinner, or help decorate the house.
• SET BOUNDARIES. Precisely explain to your family and friends what you are capable of doing this year and what you aren’t. Don’t let others guilt you into taking on more than you can handle.
• UNDERSTAND OTHERS. People who have never suffered loss may not understand your sadness or sorrow during the holidays. In particular, if your loss isn’t obvious such as with the death of a loved one, you may need to explain why you are struggling.
• BE CREATIVE. Do something completely different this year. Visit a friend, take a cruise, go to the mountains or the beach, or go skiing or hiking. Find someone else who may be struggling this year and brainstorm. The list is endless.