As we enter into the Advent season, it seems that joy is spreading far and wide. At least that is what commercials and Christmas carols would have you believe. However, for a significant portion of the population, there is little joy to be found in this season. Working as a therapist for many years, I can attest to the fact that for many, Thanksgiving and Christmas represent some of the most difficult weeks of the year.
So, if you find yourself burned out, disillusioned, or even dreading the weeks ahead, this blog post is for you. First, we’ll look at some of the reasons the holidays can be so hard, and then we’ll look at different approaches for navigating the holidays.
Although there can be so many reasons why the holidays may be difficult, I’d like to particularly look at three specific categories: grief, trauma, and family conflict or estrangement.
It’s true that grief is a painful companion at any time of the year, but at Christmas the issue can become even more complicated. It is particularly difficult if the anniversary of a death or loss falls around the holidays. Even when this is not the case, the holidays remind us of times before the loss, of times when things were different. Christmas can elicit loneliness as we no longer feel the presence of those with whom we once celebrated. Grief can also well up as we come to grips with unmet expectations or hopes. There are so many sensory reminders that can elicit grief as well around the holidays, from smells, to sights, to sounds and songs, to special foods. It seems there is just no way to avoid the plethora of reminders.
For those who come from hard places, either due to adverse childhood experiences, or PTSD suffered later in life, the holidays can also be difficult. I’m particularly thinking of so many parents I know who have foster and adoptive children. For them, navigating the holidays can be like walking through a minefield. Although their kids may be happy about the holidays, they can just as easily be triggered which often results in epic meltdowns. Just as those who are grieving find reminders everywhere, for someone who has lived through trauma, triggers may be behind around every turn.
Although the triggers differ for each person, one common reason is that emotions and expectations are often heightened around big events. Additionally, past holiday memories can be triggering as well. These triggers can elicit a fight/flight reaction in the present moment, which can look like a meltdown, yelling, throwing, fighting, or even shutting down. For the loved ones, it can feel disorienting, confusing, and frustrating, leading them to also dread the holidays.
Family Conflict and Estrangement
When we think about Thanksgiving and Christmas, we immediately think of family togetherness. For those who are estranged from loved ones though, the holidays can be very painful. All of us know what it’s like to deal with the occasional family drama, but if there is ongoing conflict or tension in family relationships, holiday gatherings can become incredibly stressful. We might even find ourselves dreading it, or agonizing over how to set appropriate boundaries. Perhaps, we might even decide to avoid those family members or family gatherings altogether.
Although there are no overarching solutions to be found for each scenario, here are a few helpful ways to proceed if you are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged this Christmas.
Be gentle with yourself. If you are grieving, are easily triggered, or are navigating family hardship, remember to give yourself grace and space. Take time to ponder what about the season overwhelms you and pare back accordingly. Talk to a loved one, a trusted friend, or a licensed therapist to help you discern how best to take care of yourself.
Look out for what’s best for you and for your family. There will be invitations, programs, and parties galore, but you’re not required to participate in everything. If you know that your children will be overloaded by too many events, pick the ones you know are best for the whole family. If you know that certain family events will cause you stress, choose to go with specific boundaries in place, or with a specific time limit. (For example, “We’ll have to leave at 8.”) In this way, you have more control and will know there’s an end in sight.
Change things up. If you’ve always participated in certain traditions, hung particular decorations, or eaten specific foods, but right now those things feel triggering, feel free to abstain from them this year. Try new ideas as a family. Go new places, make or buy new decorations, try new foods, or listen to different music. You can always go back to the tried and true, trusty traditions when you feel healthier again. This goes hand in hand with being gentle with yourself. Whatever feels safest and good, try that.
Schedule in time for soul-care. What brings you renewal and rest? What helps you feel more like yourself again? Make sure you’re setting time aside to devote to these practices. They’re important.
Reorient yourself back to Advent, the countdown to Christ’s arrival. Jesus himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He isn’t expecting you to come into Christmas with a grin pasted on your face. Maybe your Christmas looks more like lamenting. That’s okay. Laments can also be a form of praise. Invite the God of all Comfort to be present with you through the season.
Ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Here. Where you are in this present moment and in each of the hard moments ahead.