This week has marked the return of our family's favorite visitors: Max the Elf and Jolly the Reindeer. If you have children and enjoy stressing yourself out every night, you probably have similar visitors in your home this time of year. My good friend, Siri, has once again started reminding me every night around 9PM to "move the thing" (code for "get yourself out of bed and with ninja-like stealth, find somewhere different for Max and Jolly to hang out"). My yeary excel sheet is favorited on my computer again, complete with specific dates for when Max and Jolly will do fun things like leave snowmen donuts or make snowflake cut-outs or build a Christmas tree out of legos. And I have already found myself, on more than one occassion, threatening my children with statements like "Do you really want to be doing that in front of Max?" or "Max can totally see this behavior right now and he's probably going to tell Santa."
Do you know what else has made its return to our family's home this week? The magic of Christmas.
I know. Could I be any more hokey and cheesey?
It's true though. The first thing my children do each morning is look for Max and Jolly, smiling with relief when they see that they have safely returned from the North Pole. Christmas music is usually playing in the background at night and the boys rush to turn on the Christmas lights each afternoon. Last night my youngest even left a letter with some logistical questions about reindeer for Max and this morning he found Max's response. I think this is Max's 8th Christmas with us (as we resisted the thought of an elf at first) and his return each year helps illuminate just how much has changed in our family from year to year. His return also marks the return of many annual family traditions that I now cherish.
Max, Jolly and the idea of Santa bring a whole lot of joy to our lives this time of year.
If you know me or you've followed my blogs, you know that my oldest child is 11 years old now. He is perched on the fence between childhood and adolescence and when it comes to the magic of Christmas, he is firmly on the childhood side of the fence.
He still believes.
(Or, perhaps he is just an amazing actor and is afraid that he won't get presents on Christmas morning if he questions it too much.)
As more and more of my oldest son's friends, some older and some younger, have found out the story behind Santa and the Elf, I have begun to wonder if I should tell him or wait until he asks me about it. Should I let him go to school and talk abiout it, text his friends about it and continue to believe so strongly just as he did when he was 5 years old? Should I protect him from the risk of being made fun of by his peers? Should I make sure that I am the one to tell him the truth versus hearing it from someone else? Should I let him in on the secret and find a way for him to participate in keeping the magic alive for his younger brother?
After thinking about it for a few days, I have decided that I am in no rush to force him over the fence. While I don't want kids at school or on his sports teams to make fun of him for still believing in these things, I also don't want to make a decision about his life based on the mean actions of some kids. Plus, telling him won't protect him from being teased as there will always be something that children can tease other children about. What other benefit is there to telling him right now? It brings him joy, wonder and keeps the world feeling safe and fun. Right now, I don't think this is a bad thing.
I am always saying that I wish I could put my kids into a protective bubble sometimes to shield them from the difficulties of our world. This magic of Christmas that Max, Jolly and Santa usher in each year is a bit like that protective bubble. So, at least for now, I'm going to enjoy the bubble and I'm going to let my 11 year old enjoy the magic of Christmas for a while longer - even if it does mean I have to fine tune my stealthy ninja skills.
It's that time of year again. Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks have rolled out their festive holiday cups. Stores are filled with holiday decorations and pine tree scents. Radios have begun playing holiday music. Santa has already arrived in some locations for photos. Families are starting to post and send their Christmas cards (not mine though - we can't get our act together that quickly!). Turkeys are on sale and people are planning out their pie baking schedule. All around us are the sights, sounds and smells of the holidays. Such a wonderful and joyous time of the year. Right?
Not for everyone.
For many people, the winter holidays are excruciatingly painful. Either they have recently lost a loved one and this will be their first holiday season without them or the holiday season is a sad reminder of their lost loved one. When they see all the happy, smiling faces on Christmas cards, they are reminded that their loved one won't be on any cards this season. That adorable, heart-warming commercial with the cheerful family seated around the Thanksgiving dinner table makes them realize there will be an empty chair at their own Thanksgiving table this year. While perusing their local Target, a holiday sale banner catches their eye and they see "the" perfect gift for their loved one, forgetting for just a split second that there will be no gift exchange with their lost loved one this year.
Maybe you know these people. You probably do. Think about your friends, your family, your coworkers. How many of them lost someone within the past year? How many lost a very important person ever and might ache for them throughout the holiday season?
Maybe this person is you and you find yourself dreading the holiday season.
For those of us living in parts of the country where the sun sets earlier, leaving us in darkness from 4:30pm on, the nights can start to feel painfully long and lonely this time of year. The colder weather forces us indoors, encouraging us to hibernate. But if you have recently lost a loved one, the longer nights, colder temperatures and holidays on the horizon can all add up to a deep, dark sadness.
Whether you are the one hurting this holiday season or you know someone for whom the holidays are difficult, there are some tips to help you manage the grief that is often so palpable this time of year.
How to survive the holiday season when you are grieving
1. Honor your loved one
So often our society pressures us to "move on," "heal," "find closure," or "let go" of our loved ones. Those messages are wrong. We shouldn't be letting go; we should be finding new ways to hold on to them, hold onto our memories of them and find a new way to feel connected to them. Spend some time thinking about how best to honor your loved one this season. It could be as simple as lighting a candle or hanging a special ornament on your tree. Maybe it's volunteering to feed the homeless, host a toy drive for children or sponsoring a family for Christmas. Go to their favorite restaurant. Cook their famous side dish. Wear their necklace. Stop trying to forget them. Instead, embrace your memories of them. Talk about them. Say their name and say it often.
2. Allow yourself to feel
It's amazing how connected our senses are to our emotions. Just a certain smell in the air or a song on the radio can take us back to another time in our life. The holidays can do this too. Don't be surprised if you find yourself more emotional than usual. If you need to cry, cry. If you you need to express some anger, take up kickboxing or scream into a pillow. Seriously. Let out your emotions. If you try to bottle up all of your feelings, they probably will escape at the most inopportune times - like when your child spills his glass of apple juice, someone cuts you off on the highway or that lady in front of you tries to sneak 13 items into the 12 item or less express line at the grocery store. Feeling all of your emotions doesn't make you weak; it makes you human.
3. Be social...or don't
It's normal to not want to celebrate at all during the holidays after a loss. Seeing so many people laughing and filled with joy can feel surreal when your world is still spinning uncontrollably after a loss. If you don't want to attend some of the holiday functions, don't. You know yourself best. One word of caution, however: isolation after a loss can lead to depression and complicated grief. Sometimes it's good to force yourself to socialize, just a little. When you do accept an invitation somewhere, though, give yourself an escape route to use if things suddenly feel too much.
4. Speak up
For many people, their support networks kick into hyper drive following a loss. Phone calls, texts, visits, casseroles and cards are pouring in almost non-stop immediately following the death. But after the funeral, those types of support can suddenly come to a crashing halt. Do people suddenly stop caring? No. Many people are uncomfrotable around grief and simply don't know what to say, what to do or how to act. So, they avoid. Don't be afraid to tell your support network what you need. It's ok to ask for specific things like invitiations to social events, regular phone calls, a visit, staying away for a while and even practical help with things like errands and child care. In most cases, your support network will be delighted to have been given a specific way to be useful and supportive for you.
5. Be kind to yourself
Watch for negative self-talk and talking down about yourself. Thinking or saying things like "I shouldn't be crying like this" "This shouldn't bother me so much" "What's wrong with me" only bring us down more. Be kind and understanding to yourself. Grief doesn't go away. It's always there inside you. You carry it around with you and sometimes it's heavier than other times. It's normal and it's ok. Recognize that it is normal for this time of year to be more painful and challenging and also look for the things and people that bring you hope. Do things that make you feel good and nurture yourself. Yoga. Walk. Exercise. Journal. Read. Play music. Listen to music. Start therapy. Attend a support group (see the end of this article for a link to some groups). Remember that you are human and deserve compassion - especially from yourself.
A note about children
Often, children know far more than we think they do and they become very skilled at a young age at suppressing some of their feelings. Believe me when I say that children, even infants, can feel loss and can grieve. But, many children have been given the message that it is not acceptable to show sadness, cry or verbalize their feelings around loss. So, when they wonder who will put the star on the Christmas tree this year now that mommy is gone or who will carve the turkey now that grandpa is gone, they might keep those questions to themselves. Just as many adults don't want to bring up a sad topic to their friend and make them cry, so too do children want to avoid being the one that makes their parents cry. So, check in with your children if they have also lost someone and encourage them to follow these same tips.
How to help a grieving friend during the holiday season
1. Be there
There are few things in life that can make you feel as powerless as watching someone you love have their heart broken. For many of us, we can only take so much time in that uncomfortable place before we need find something to distract ourselves. Rather than running away from the pain, try to lean in to that discomfort and be there for your friend. Acknowledge to them that you understand the holidays may be difficult for them. Remind them that you care about them and will be there for them. There are no magic words you can say to make things better. Just being there with them physically is sometimes magial enough.
2. Ask questions
Ask your friend what they need. Rather than saying "let me know if you need anything" or "I'm here if you need me," be brave and ask things like "What will be the hardest part of Thanksgiving for you?" or "What do you need to help you get through the season?" Encourage your friend to be honest with you about their needs.
3. Talk about their loved one
You did a double take when you read this one, right? For many of us, we have been conditioned to avoid talking about someone who has died. We don't want to upset our friends and remind them of their loss. We don't want to make their pain worse. Guess what? They probably are always thinking about their loved one. Their heart is always hurting. One of their biggest fears, especially if they are a parent who has lost a child, is that the world (and they, themselves) will forget their loved one. Say their name. If you knew them, talk about your memories of them. Talking about them will give your friend permission to also talk about them and doing so will help immensely with their grief process.
4. Include them
Even though your friend may not feel much like socializing at times, continue to extend invitations. Don't assume that just because they have declined your last four invitiations means they will never be interested in hanging out with you again. That 5th invitiation just may be the one that finally gets them out of their house.
5. Don't take it personal
When your friend turns down your invitiation to your Christmas party or backs out of your girls' night out at the last minute or doesn't return your text message right away, don't take it personal. Remember that the holidays aren't always the joyous, wonderful time that Hallmark makes them out to be. For some people, they are a sad reminder of those who are no longer with us.
***For a listing of local seminars on Surviving the Holidays, visit http://www.griefshare.org/holidays seminar
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Before I became a parent, I had some basic parenting expectations for myself. For example, I was quite positive that my children:
Once I became a parent, however, that list quickly got tossed into the garbage. Parenting, it turns out, is something that you can never fully prepare for or predict. I am often making things up as I go along, course correcting and adjusting as I evaluate how I am handling the monumental task of parenting. Most days I feel like a total failure but sometimes, every once in a while, everything falls into place and often, when it does, it's because I listened to that little feeling in my gut - my intuition.
Two nights ago, after a weekend full of sports game, field clean up, work, errands and kitchen painting, my 8 year old laid in his bed and sobbed in my arms about how all he wants is "one day to just do nothing." He was tired of school, tired of sports, tired of running errands, tired of having to clean his room. He was tired. His gas tank was empty.
I talk about this concept a lot with my patients - the notion that we are like cars (crude comparison, I know) and if we don't take care of our cars and fill them with fuel, eventually they will sputter and leave us stranded on the side of the road. My little guy was very quickly running out of fuel and was close to breaking down on the side of the road. With my patients, we brainstorm ways to refuel ourselves. For some of us, it's exercise, for others it's time with friends, for others it's time alone. For my insightful 8 year old, he had identified that what would refuel him was a day to just be a kid.
My initial reaction was to validate his feelings and commit to finding a time to take a day off together but as we talked, I felt that feeling. You know the one: that intuitive, instinctive feeling in our bellies or our chests that is left over from evolution. Usually it tells us what we need to know in critical moments - like when we are in danger. But, if we listen, it can also help guide us in our decision making process and let us know which decision is the "right" one. My gut was telling me that I needed to make time now.
I tucked him in to bed and then set to work rearranging my schedule so I could be home the next day. When he woke in the morning, I invited him to stay home with me and have his day off. He smiled bigger than I had seen in a few weeks, hugged me and ran into the living room. I also invited his older brother, who had been fighting off a virus, to stay home as well. It took him a good 30 minutes to make his decision but he also ultimately decided that he could use a day off too.
You read that right. I let my children miss school and neither of them were physically sick. But, I would argue, both of them were mentally and emotionally running out of fuel and needed some time off. After all, mental health and emotional health are just as important as physical health. In fact, they could be MORE important than physical health as it has often been suggested that when we are emotionally and mentally run down, we are more susceptible to illness.
The rules of the day off were quite simple - there were no rules. Also, there had to be fresh baked banana bread (per my 8 year's old request.) We stayed in our pajamas and sweat pants for the day, ate fresh banana bread and just "were." The boys played games, watched tv, played video games, drew, colored and played outside. It was like a snow day, the blizzard kind, where the roads get closed down and everything pauses. Except there was no snow and no need to shovel.
As dinner time rolled around, I found myself reflecting a lot on the day. My boys were smiling and their fuel tanks were refilled. I also noticed that my fuel tank was much more full. Hearing my children just be children and do the work of children - play - was a beautiful thing. If we, as adults, can take a breath and really evaluate our lives, we probably will find that we could benefit from more snow days, minus the snow, in our lives.
No matter how busy our lives are, I strongly believe we all can find a way to fit some snow days into our schedule. Sometimes the laundry, dishes, phone calls, bills, errands and work can wait. Sometimes it is ok to ask others for help. None of my hospice patients have ever looked at me while approaching their final days on Earth and admitted that they wished they had worked more, kept a cleaner house or spent less time with their loved ones. No. It's the opposite. Almost everyone I have been with at the end of their lives shares the same sentiments - it's the small things that matter in the end - time with children doing nothing, time with friends over coffee, tea or wine, lazy mornings with their partner. It turns out that often the things that refuel us are also the things that we treasure and need the most.
So, my challenge to all of you is to tune everything out for 5 minutes. Really. Do it. Let the dishes pile up. Leave the stack of bills on the counter. Leave the laundry in the baskets. Let those calls you need to return wait a few moments. Look around at your life. What is truly most important? What fills your tank? How can you make room in your schedule this week to fit in some of these activities?
I suspect that for many of you, you are running on fumes now. You are flying down the highway at 90 miles an hour, seeing your gas needle nearing closer and closer to "E." Yet, you are ignoring it, hoping that you can run on fumes, "just" a bit longer. Pull over now and fill that tank. Stop putting you and your own needs last. Make your own snow day!
About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!