Last week I was interviewed for a podcast. Typically when I do these types of interviews, I am at my home office, in front of my computer, wearing my slippers (After all, no one can see my feet). But, for this particular podcast, I went to the studio where there were two interviewers and two producers -one for sound, one for video. The topic was workplace mental health issues, an issue we could have discussed for hours, but we only had 45 minutes. (I will share the recording when it is released.) Because the holidays are upon us, some of the interview veered into the added stress that comes with this time of year.
After, after the interview, I was thanking the crew when the camera guy asked if I could give him some advice. As a psychologist, I get asked this a lot. His particular question was one that I thought might be helpful to a broader audience:
“How do you deal with someone in your life who gets sad around the holidays because they miss loved ones who have passed?”
Such a great question- one that impacts so many people.
The holidays tend to be a time to spend with family, to enjoy (or at least execute) traditions that have been practiced for years or even decades, for taking time to ponder all the things for which we are grateful. Loved ones who have passed away often come to mind; and even if they have been gone for a while, the pain and sadness can intensify around the holidays.
Here are five tips for feeling merrier over the holidays when you’re missing loved ones:
- Respect your (and other’s) emotions
Mourning is a process. Even if your loved one passed years ago, the holidays can spur sadness, anger, despair or any other distress. Don’t judge yourself. One client told me she was embarrassed to cry on Christmas because her mother who loved this holiday would not be with her. In fact, it had been almost 10 years since her mom had died. So, not only was she sad, but she threw in some guilt and embarrassment- not a very happy mixture.
Other people’s emotions may flair up over the holidays, too. The camera man told me his mother spends hours crying over the holidays each year because she misses loved ones who have passed. Rather than trying to change how people react, try to meet them where they are. Of course, if their distress (or yours) is so strong that it prevents you from functioning, then it’s important to speak with a professional. But in other cases, respect that the holidays can bring up emotions in people and be OK with that.
While your loved one may no longer be here with you on earth, your memories of them are still quite alive. A great way to include your loved one in your holidays is to share stories about them. Reminisce about some of the good times or funny experiences you had together: when he locked himself out of the house and had to sleep on the porch; when she tripped and fell right into a celebrity; when you were together at the beach and saw a the most beautiful sunset. I bet there are stories you love to tell or hear about your loved one. The holidays are the perfect time to share them.
And if you are with people who knew your departed loved one, ask them to share their most memorable stories. You might even discover a new story that brightens up your holiday.
When it comes to supporting someone who is mourning a loved one, ask that person questions, such as “How did you two meet” or “tell me again about the time you were stuck in the elevator together.” This invitation to speak about their loved one can be a true gift. Equally important: listen to what they say- even if you have heard the story a dozen times before. The purpose isn’t necessarily to learn something new, but rather to provide a safe and welcome space to reminisce and muse over past times.
Start a new tradition
Are there traditions you don’t particularly like but feel like you should continue anyway? Or are there traditions that you used to do with your departed loved one that cause you distress just thinking about them?
I have a saying: Just because you always have doesn’t mean you always should.
Just because you have always made a huge meal from scratch doesn’t mean you need to do it this year. Just because you have always gone to different family members’ homes during the holidays, doesn’t mean you should this year.
Re-evaluate how you spend your time and energy this holiday season, and make sure it works for you.
Rather than cooking a huge meal, decide to have a potluck, get your dinner catered or some combination of the two.
Instead of trying to see so many family members during the holidays, decide to stay home and schedule family visits in the new year.
Or how about creating an entire new tradition? For years, I would make a huge meal for Christmas Eve and Christmas, but that was a lot of planning and stress. Now we have a tradition of doing take-out (usually Chinese) on Christmas Eve. We enjoy great food, spend more time together and less time in the kitchen.
What new tradition would you like to create?
Help out others in a meaningful way
When we’re upset and focused on what we miss, it’s easy to become absorbed in emotion. A great way to counter this is to help others in need. Maybe you volunteer at a homeless shelter, church, hospital, nursing home, some place where others are going through a tough time, too.
Or maybe you will choose to ask an “orphan” to join you for your holiday meal. This could be a neighbor, co-worker or old friend who has no plans.
Helping others and being a source of positivity for them can have a positive impact on you, too!
Drop the perfectionism
There is so much pressure around the holidays to be perfect: Make the perfect meals, be the perfect family where everyone gets along, always be in the perfect mood, always merry and happy. Spoiler alert: Life is not perfect. Expecting perfection from yourself, from others, even from the holiday will set you up for disappointment.
Instead of looking for a perfect holiday, focus on what is truly important to you: connecting with loved ones, focusing on gratitude, giving yourself a break from the everyday craziness and relaxing. Give yourself permission to find ways to embrace those core things.
This holiday season, commit to making the most of your time and energy. Give yourself a break as you continue to mourn, and/or support those around you who are grieving. Allowing yourself this freedom may be the best way to truly have a happy holidays.