By Pia Scaglione, Psy. D., The Counseling Center
While many people look forward to the upcoming holiday season as a time of connection and happiness, for some the focus on family and togetherness revives painful feelings of loss, estrangement, and lack of satisfaction in their lives or relationships.
This theme arises in psychotherapy sessions at other times of year as well–Mother’s and Father’s Day come easily to mind– but in autumn the long lead up to the major holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve raise high expectations. Decorations go up, holiday music plays, gift buying starts, and TV shows, films, and commercials send constant reminders of the holiday spirit we’re all supposed to be experiencing. Those who celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa may find that the more intense focus on Christmas takes the full pressure off them, but there is often a general expectation that everyone should be enjoying holiday cheer.
Meeting this expectation can be difficult for many, impossible for some. When a loved one has recently died, survivors often wonder how they can possibly continue to celebrate a holiday in which that person played an essential role; they might wonder if they can mark the holiday at all. The first year after a death may bring empathy and condolences from people in their community, but the acute sense of the loved ones’ absence can remain for much longer. Should they try to pretend everything is fine? Should they bring up the loss and express difficult feelings during what was previously a time of joy? Questions of what the holidays will be like now that a loved one is missing may be too painful even to consider.
Those who struggle with conflict and/or estrangement in their family may feel flawed. Rather than anticipate spending time with their family, they may dread seeing them or avoid interacting with them. They might wonder what is wrong with them for experiencing this aversion, decide they must be broken because they’ve been rejected, or feel the need to cut off relationships with those who bring them harm or pain. Even those who find themselves in healthy familial relationships as adults can be troubled by memories of challenging holidays from as far back as childhood, which act as a filter through which they experience the holidays even years later.
Going through a divorce or lacking relationships that are expected of them at their age, such as being in a romantic partnership or having children, can also lead to discomfort during the holidays. Perhaps the holidays were spent with a partner’s family and those traditions are now lost. Maybe the children are spending the holidays with the other parent, leading to feelings of emptiness or loneliness. Seeing oneself as the only single in a collection of familial groups can be a reminder of an unfulfilled desire for a relationship or can produce feelings of being “othered” for not wanting to be in a relationship. Families in which a member is struggling with addiction must often find ways to manage the uncertainty or pain that can surround the holidays for that loved one. The person struggling with addition must also prepare for the triggers of their addiction, which can multiply during the holidays.
An element of grief inhabits all of these situations–loss through death, letting go of the idealized life imagined and accepting life as it is, mourning the relationship that was once close and has become damaged. Each individual’s approach to these challenging experiences can be quite varied and being flexible from year to year is important; what works one season may not be what works the next. Members of the same family often have very different needs at different times.
In some situations, a change of scenery, either hosting at a different home or going away altogether, may be helpful, particularly when physical reminders of a loved one are painful. For others, reminders of a loved one bring comfort–creating dishes that they enjoyed, sharing stories about them, and even leaving an empty chair to honor their seat at the table. If being with the family of origin is toxic, finding ways to bond with a chosen family of close friends, such as taking a trip or hosting a “Friendsgiving,” can be a powerful way to remain connected.
Volunteering can help people find perspective and meaning at any time, and opportunities abound during the holidays. They can nourish the hungry at a soup kitchen, collect toys for needy children, or help raise money to meet a local need. Reaching out to establish and solidify healthy connections, whether through their community, career, or faith, can offer fulfilling alternatives when family cannot give comfort. Although isolation sometimes makes challenging days more difficult, hours spent deliberately alone, journaling, reflecting, or doing what they most enjoy, can often bring people deep satisfaction.
So, too, can seeing a therapist. For those who continue to feel stuck in painful emotions, toxic relationships, or damaging patterns, talking through one’s feelings with a trained professional can be a tremendously helpful way to understand and manage these challenges.
The Counseling Center is a nonprofit group of therapists located in Bronxville and serving its surrounding communities. Learn more at https://counselingcenter.org/. Or, if at any time you feel in need of comfort and support, please call 914-793-3388.