By Dr Bill Webster
Feeling low this Christmas season? Amid cheery songs, festive parties, gifts and good wishes, many lonely bereaved people are crying on the inside. Maybe you’re one of them. I certainly was the first Christmas after my wife died. It had been a horrible year and I was still processing the deep pain of abandonment and loss when “the season to be jolly” came along. No fun, because I felt anything but jolly. In fact it was downright gloomy.
One widow recalled how she felt during the Christmas after her husband’s death: “Little mattered to me. I didn’t want to hear carols. I didn’t want to be cheered up. I didn’t want to look at perky Christmas cards. I wanted the same thing I’d wanted every day for eight months: the strength to force myself out of bed in the morning, to brush my teeth and to eat.”
So many things contribute to the Christmas blues. Hectic activity can bring physical and emotional stress. Overspending can produce financial pressure. Year-end reflection and focus on loss can magnify sorrow. Maybe it’s just an “empty chair” that reminds you of your pain.
So, how can you cope with Christmas after Bereavement? Here are some suggestions, and I invite you to add your own ideas to the list:
To DO ….
- Spend time with people, especially positive ones who lift your spirits, and bring some cheer.
- Lights on!Enjoy sunlight, outdoors if possible. Brighten up your home and workplace. More light sometimes helps you feel more positive
- Budget your gift spending and stick to your plan. Prevent the credit card blues of January.
- Talk about your feelings. Keeping them bottled up can mean anxiety, ulcers, sour disposition, and/or explosion. So, who can you talk to? A friend, a support group, a professional (doctor, minister or counsellor)?
- Give to others. No matter what age you are, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to bring back the magic of being a kid at Christmas. Being an adult doesn’t mean you have to have a stiff upper-lip when it comes to a holiday away from family. One way to rekindle your Christmas spirit is by spending time with those people who are less fortunate. So …
- Volunteering during the holidays is a way to connect with others, boost your self-esteem, and bring joy to people less fortunate. Consider offering to help serve dinner at a soup kitchen, bring gifts to a children’s hospital, or visit lonely residents at a nursing home.
- Accept Invitations. Perhaps you are alone this year because you turned down invitations. Call those people back and say “yes”. If you are feeling really down about being alone at Christmas and can’t pull yourself out of it, reach out for help. Call a friend, family member, or a helpline and let them know you would like some company, or just to talk. You don’t need to be alone.
- Enjoy Solitude. If being alone at Christmas is unavoidable, plan a day for yourself. Get a new haircut, buy a new outfit, choose your favorite foods and plan a movie marathon. Christmas is a day when you can indulge yourself without feeling guilty, so just do it.
- Organize an “Orphan Christmas.” You are not the only one alone during the holidays. Plan an “Orphan Christmas” for those who have no one to spend the holiday with, or join a group of people in similar circumstances.
- Host an Online Christmas. Do you have online friends? Do you have long-distance relatives? Host an online Christmas by setting up a Skype chatroom or Facebook group. People can drop in and out as they please, and you don’t have to cook, clean, or even get out of your pyjamas.
- Simplify. Cut your to-do list in half. Keep on asking yourself this question: “Will the world end tomorrow if this doesn’t get done?”
- Prioritize. Santa may need to put something under the tree for your daughter, mother, husband, and your two best friends. But his elves are a bit too busy for 300 of your friends and their cousins. So let yourself off the “ought to” and “should” hook.
- Attitude of Gratitude. Take the time to appreciate what you do have in your life, be it good health, a place to live, or food on the table. Don’t spend so much time grieving what you have lost that you forget to appreciate what (and who) you still have. Look forward and plan for a better year next year.
- Don’t rush the process. Persevere. Remember that “The greatest oak was once a little nut that held its ground.” Only in struggling to emerge from a small hole in the cocoon does a butterfly form wings strong enough to fly. In the struggle, you find strength. You can’t wait for the storm to be over. Sometimes you have to learn how to dance in the rain.
- Take the fork. Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it” … which simply means: it doesn’t matter which direction you choose as long as you keep moving.
…or NOT to do:
But sometimes it is just as effective to consider a “Not To-Do” list. That can remind us of things we need not do if it’s going to be too stressful, and sometimes just doing that can help us put things back in perspective.
So take a deep breath and say to yourself: To reduce stress and increase my holiday cheer this year I promise … :
- … Not to overspend. It’s so tempting to spoil our kids, grandkids or friends. But too much “retail therapy” can spoil the next 6 months!
- … Not to add unnecessary stress and expense by feeling I need to send out cards to people I see every day. Cards are great for friends and relatives who live at a distance and for whom a note or letter is an important way to catch up. But saying and meaning a cheerful and heartfelt “Happy Holidays” to people I see regularly is enough.
- … Not to give in to the kids’ pleas for the biggest tree on the lot. (I was a slow learner on this one myself. Too often, we’d end up cutting off 3 feet when we get home.) I’ll remind everyone that a 6-foot tree can look puny on the lot but impressive in the corner of our living room.
- … Not to put the kids I know on Santa’s lap to get one of those standard pictures unless they ask or WANT to be there. We tell kids not to talk to strangers all year and now we expect them to get cozy with that big guy in the red suit who they find a bit scary? As cute as those pictures can be, they’re certainly not worth traumatizing the child.
- … Not to start a new diet just yet. Oh, I’ll stick to healthy eating and balanced meals but this is not the time to torture myself and everyone around me by trying to lose 10 pounds by New Year’s. Being rigid about food this time of year is often an exercise in self-defeat. Talking about it triggers all kinds of not-so-cheerful feelings in other people. January 1 resolutions will come soon enough.
- … Not to run around trying to find the perfect presents when time together is what most of my friends and adult relatives want most. Most adults of my generation don’t need more “stuff”. We do need to have more full conversations, to share experiences, and just to have the comfort of being in the same place at the same time now and then.
- … Not to ask my spouse to go to my office party. There are few things as boring as listening to other people talk shop about something you’re clueless about. You go and enjoy some down time with colleagues. Let your partner take the kids sledding or shopping or out for a treat, or just do their own thing.
- … Not to neglect adults in our efforts to make kids happy. Make at least one adults-only activity during the holiday season. It can be as simple as going for a walk in the neighborhood to look at lights or as elaborate as a dress-up outing to a special restaurant. The point is to put all our relationships where they belong … which should be first in our priorities.
- … Not to become a slave to lists – even this one. I promise to stay flexible, to cross off things I don’t want to do, can’t realistically do, or know I won’t get around to anyway. Then, while you are on a roll, maybe cross off a few more things for good measure.
There. That feels better.