When Holidays are not Happy Days
Ruth W Crocker
If you’re feeling not so happy during the holidays, you’re not alone.
Many people feel overwhelmed by loss rather than happiness; loss of family members, traditions, and place (for those who have moved far away from what they call “home”). Certain people in our lives might have been beacons for how to celebrate and enjoy a holiday. In a small survey I conducted, one widow described her deceased husband as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. When he was gone, it was difficult to get into the spirit in the same way. Another widow mentioned that her sadness since her husband’s death in Iraq is greater at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young to remember their father. He died when they were babies.
Expectation is hard to manage, too. The holidays require being social and happy, buying gifts, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all this in a short period of time (if you haven’t been shopping all year!).
Family conflicts can flare up when particular family members get together. Sometimes new family members don’t seem to fit in, or are disliked by another member. The first time I saw the National Lampoon Christmas movie I recognized my family immediately, especially the maniac decorator (my younger brother) and the oblivious relatives (some of my aunts and uncles). I remember a plate of Chinese food sailing across the table at one Christmas Eve dinner table from one of my brothers to the other as an argument ensued about money – and they were adults!
There is also stress when we become the one in charge of the festivities. I remember trying to replicate my mother’s twenty-five pound roast turkey with chestnut and milk cracker stuffing and her multitude of vegetable dishes the first time I took over the Thanksgiving dinner in my twenties. I wanted to make the meal exactly as my mother and grandmother had prepared it for fifty years before me. It had to taste the same. I felt as if I’d won the Olympic Gold Medal when my mother said the mashed potatoes were “not bad.” I also realized what an exhausting responsibility I’d taken on, even if I did enjoy the compliments on my cooking. The tradition had been that mom “did it all,” and now it was me.
It can be lonely at the top if you’re the one who’s arranging and cooking and placating the participants. Loneliness can also feel more acute during the holidays if there is a family feud with people refusing to see or speak to other family members.
Is there some way to prepare for or ward off some of this seasonal stress? Is there a “holiday shot” similar to a flu shot? The first step is to realize that it isn’t “just us.” We have our personal situations, but there is also an atmosphere that pervades the universe created by the commercial marketing of holidays.
Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are represented in images and sounds everywhere. The Norman Rockwell depictions of families gathered around a plump golden turkey appear, and then it’s a lighted tree where angelic children in their pajamas are happily placing ornaments, popcorn strings and tinsel. The airways drone with Christmas carols, Bing Crosby, Feliz Navidad, and the clanging bell of the Salvation Army.
Images of happy shoppers and wide-eyed children opening gifts prompt us to recall our memories. On television, old movies like “A Christmas Carol” and “Miracle on 42nd Street” take us through the story arc of loss, misunderstanding, revelation and redemption – except that, when someone is living with a loss, it’s difficult to get beyond act one. Happy endings can create sadness.
For those who have lost a spouse, a sibling, a partner, a parent or a child, the media bombardment during holidays is a painful reminder that someone we love is not in the picture. Even if life was not always easy with that person, these sights and sounds tend to make us cast a spotlight on all that was closeness and fun.
I remember, after my husband was killed in Vietnam in 1969, well-meaning people asking me what I was going to do on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Living in the present is more comfortable for people in the acute stage of loss. Trying to imagine the future and make plans can be excruciating. I discovered it was good to plan ahead with a precise answer, “I’ll be with my family,” or “I’m going to Mexico.” Responding with, “I don’t know,” even if it was true, was more difficult and awkward in the early days of grief.
Finally, holidays tend to exaggerate our tendency to compare our situation with that of others. At Christmas or Hanukah it’s hard to avoid an agonizing sense of loss – and even anger and jealousy. It is perfectly acceptable to turn down invitations that involve socializing until you feel stronger.
Acute emotional pain eases with the passage of time. But as we move through time and events, it also helps to pay attention to our feelings. The practice of mindfulness during these excruciating times can be as simple as acknowledging, “Yes, it’s painful to see couples holding hands.” This is a step towards recognizing feelings that are hard to bear.
Perhaps one solution to stressors and depressors is to re-imagine the holiday. Start with a small ritual that combines something from the past with your present experience. Create an altar of your favorite inspirational snippets of poetry and quotes, and reminders of people you love. Decorate it with objects and photographs. Light candles, and invite friends over to talk about their memories. Find laughter. Rediscover the funny stories from the past. Believe that holidays are a time to do whatever you want, to celebrate however you want; to find what is precious and nourishing. Celebrate yourself and your successes. Remember that the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day.” Make it your own holy day.
Ruth W. Crocker is on the Board of Directors and is the Chapter/Region Liaison for Gold Star Wives. She is the author of Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, a memoir, and many other magazine and journal articles. Visit her at www.ruthwcrocker.com.