If you are like me, you probably can feel the growing holiday tension out there and with each passing day, the tension gets thicker and thicker. You know what I mean. You can feel it when you are shopping in the stores. People scurry by each other, avoiding eye contact as they shop for the "perfect" gift. They fight over the last pink stocking in the Target dollar bin (I saw a woman grab one out of a fellow shopper's hand two days ago as she declared "I saw that first!” ). They roll their eyes, sigh loudly and make rude comments about cashiers who are "too slow." They yell at each other over parking spots. They flash each other the middle finger as they cut each other off on the roadways. Yes, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. For sure.
So, with only a few days left until Christmas day, I have a few tips that may help to reduce some of the holiday stress and allow us to enjoy the true spirit of the holidays.
1. Re-evaluate your expectations
Chances are you have a "To Do" list a mile long. I'm going to guess that the bulk of that list contains items that are designed to make other people happy. Are you searching for the perfect gift for your children or partner? Are you planning a perfect family gathering that will allow the family to get along and not argue? Are you hoping to finally get approval and a public acknowledgement of your worth from that family member that never gives it to you? STOP! Sit down with your list and really look at what's important. Maybe you don't need to make a perfect roast for the family on Christmas day. Maybe a crockpot ham would be just fine. Maybe you don't need to bake sugar cookies from scratch. Maybe pre-made dough would be fine. Where can you cut corners and make things a little bit easier? Scaling things back a bit won’t turn you into a Grinch but it may preserve some of your energy…and sanity.
2. Get off social media
Ok. Maybe that's not realistic. But, at least change the way you experience social media. Chances are that at least 75% of the pictures and posts you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are perfected (read: fake) versions of pictures and posts that have been taken, retaken, edited, deleted and re-written at least 5 times. It's not real. For every "perfect" post you see from a contact on social media, there are probably an equal number of imperfect moments from them. So, when you see that super happy family on Facebook and you think "Why can't we be like them?" remember that the same family could have yelled at each other in the car just five minutes before the post. Don't compare yourself to people on social media. And, let's face it, social media can be plain hurtful. Are there posts from people that always tend to hurt your feelings? Posts that will undoubtedly trigger some unpleasant memories? Go ahead and hide those people. Don’t be dramatic and unfriend them or post passive aggressive memes about them, simply hide their posts. You have the ability to control who you see on your feed. Take a few minutes and clean it up.
3. Spend time with your people
You know the people I'm talking about - the people with whom you can be yourself. They accept you - even when your hair and makeup aren't done and you elect to wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Schedule time with them where you can just be you. Or, if time is tight, turn to them via phone calls and text messages. Reach out to them when you feel like you are sinking – they are probably feeling the same way!
Look at children. They have this great ability to let stress roll off their shoulders. Most of the children I know are not stressing about finding the perfect gift, planning the perfect party, cooking the perfect meal or breaking the bank with gift giving. You know why? (Well, a big part of that is because children are selfish little creatures - not a bad thing, that's just where they are developmentally.) I think a big part of it is because they know how to play. As I write this, my oldest son is sprawled out on my couch, wearing his pj's and drinking his decaf coffee while he plays video games. (Boy, did I leave myself open right there for a whole lot of judging.) He could not be happier. Later today he will hang out with some of his friends and they will probably do nothing but flip water bottles, make Musicly videos and watch the Pats game. You know what? They will have a blast because they are playing. We could take a page from their book. Take some time to play. What does that look like for you? Just because we are grown-ups doesn't mean we can't have fun.
5. Nurture yourself
Santa probably isn't going to leave you a big fat pile of presents on Christmas day and, if you are a parent, Christmas is sort of all about the kids. So, take some time and do something nice for yourself. Stop and sit at Starbucks by yourself and have a cup of hot chocolate. Get your nails done. Take a nap. Buy yourself a Christmas gift. Take a bubble bath. Go to the gym. Do something for you. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take up a lot of time but it sure can make a difference and you deserve it!
I know this list isn’t going to remove all of the Christmas stress from your lives. The holidays can be intensely overwhelming and, at times, painful. But, maybe, just maybe, if you take a few minutes and follow some of these tips, you just might find the holidays a little more bearable and, hopefully, even enjoyable.
And, if not, there’s always wine and chocolate.
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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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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!