Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's the Most Emotional Time of the Year

It goes without saying that the 6 or so weeks from mid-November through the first week of January are rife with experiences that evoke strong emotion. Everywhere we go, we are greeted by bright holiday decorations, and television and radio stations bombard us with music and scenes that shout HAPPY, but the truth of the matter is that for many people, this is not, as the song actually goes, "the most wonderful time of the year".

For those who have lost a loved one or who have lost their job or are facing some other sort of tragic loss, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve are stark reminders of what used to be and of what is no more. While the notion that the suicide rate increases dramatically around these holidays has been disproven over and again, there's no doubt that for many people, the holiday season is a difficult one.

For those of us who have suffered a significant loss, there are various methods for coping with this emotional time of the year. An acquaintance who lost her husband to cancer shared with me that for the first 2 years after his death she spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas in bed,  getting up only to use the restroom. Her children and grandchildren gathered in the family room without her; she wore earplugs and burrowed under the covers.

The first winter after my husband passed away, my children and I decided that we could not face the holidays in our own home. My daughter and I travelled to Kansas City to spend that first Thanksgiving with my son, and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. Christmas found us on a 6-day Caribbean cruise. Our strategy was a common one; many people who have lost a loved one spend the holidays away from home, at least for a few years. In our case, after that first year we returned to spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at home; it has at times been uncomfortable, but we survived, and each year gets a little easier.

Many people scale back on decorating, baking, and other traditional activities or they replace them with new ones. My mother, like many empty-nesters, stopped putting up the "big" Christmas tree the year after my father died; instead, she bought a smaller artificial tree and significantly reduced her holiday decorating and baking as well. I find myself doing the same thing, but I'm not sure if it's because my husband is no longer here or because my children no longer live at home, or both. A dear friend told me that after her son died, she and her husband discontinued their tradition of an evening spent driving throughout their mid-sized town with mugs of hot chocolate, checking out the various outdoor decorations. Instead, they spend an afternoon decorating their son's gravesite and then spend a quiet evening at home.

A woman who contacted me after reading this blog shared with me that a few weeks after her family's home was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, one of her school-age children mentioned that while she missed some of the things that had been in their home, there were lots of things she didn't miss at all and didn't care about replacing. That comment led to several interesting conversations between this woman, her husband, and their three children; ultimately, they decided to put a stop to the massive spending and gift-giving they had always engaged in at Christmas. Instead, they opted to only give each other one gift apiece and to limit it to either something handmade (either by the giver or by a craftsperson/artist) or an "act" of some kind. For example, her youngest son gave his older brother the gift of taking out the trash (his older brother's least-favorite chore) for 6 months. She told me that in the 8 Christmases since their home was lost, her family has enthusiastically decided every year to continue this new tradition; the positive effects, she explained, have been too many to list.

These are, of course, just a few ways that people who are dealing with a significant loss have chosen to cope with the holiday season. What works for one person, for one family, may not appeal in any way to another. It is important, I believe, to determine what works for you. Of course, the more people who are involved in this decision -- spouse and/or children, for example -- the more difficult it may be to come to a consensus. Patience, active listening, and an open mind while discussing these issues will go a long way in helping a group arrive at a plan that is agreeable to each member.

I will share a bit more on this topic later this week, but until then, please feel free to share your own experiences of how you've dealt with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. 

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