For the first time in 16 years, Janice was going to spend Thanksgiving without her kids. Even though the divorce was finalized in the summer, she did not realize until a week before the holiday that her kids would spend the entire week with her ex. She was devastated. The traditions she so purposefully cultivated were now going to be done by her cheating ex and his very young girlfriend. She was pissed.
James lost his wife of 40 years just three months ago. Their kids begged him to travel several states away from where they lived to celebrate the holidays, but he refused. He just could not muster the strength to pretend to enjoy being around them and the grandkids. Not that he did not want to be with them, just that being with them without her was too painful. Especially this year.
Jack’s orders came in early. He wasn’t supposed to be going overseas now but the Army changed their mind and his unit was sent to be deployed immediately. His wife and extended family tried to keep a good face, but they were saddened by the change. It was their child’s first Thanksgiving and he had to miss it.
The first holiday after a change like one of these is hard and scary. Here are some suggestions to rewriting the holidays especially when you don’t want to.
Be honest. Staying busy and distracted during the holidays to not think about or feel the change is a common reaction. While this is an acceptable coping mechanism for the moment, denying the difference over a long period of time causes substantial problems. A better solution is to take time away from everyone to acknowledge, process, accept, and emote. Embrace the anger, sadness, and disappointment rather than blocking it. Being honest about the present moment’s pain is difficult but it is the first step to healing.
Be patient. More than likely family and friends will be so caught up in their own holiday experience that they will forget this holiday will be atypical. Trying to get them to experience the same level of pain results in frustration and sometimes further isolation. Be patient with them. A gentle reminder is more effective than harsh words. Reminding them is reaching out for help. Try to find one or two safe people with high levels of empathy to express the difficult emotions about the holiday.
Be proactive. When you reach out to friends and family inquiring about their holiday plans, this might work as a reminder that this holiday will be different for you. If an invitation for something completely outside of the norm is offered, do not immediately discount it. It might just be what is needed. Otherwise, do not wait for an invitation. Be proactive. Take the initiative and make plans ahead of time even if they are to go out to a restaurant to travel. This is not the time to be alone or without a strong support network.
Be realistic. The absence of someone will create a dark cloud over a normally joyous time. Often it is the simple unexpected things that can catch you by surprise. It could be a Thanksgiving recipe, an ornament for the tree, a favorite holiday song, a special tradition that was shared only with them, or the absence of other friends and family that normally are present. This year will be hard but it won’t be like this every year. As time passes, the pain will lessen but the fond memories do not need to disappear. Be realistic in your expectations.
Be flexible. Use this time of adjustment to identify potentially new traditions. At first, things might not go so smoothly. It might seem unfamiliar, uncomfortable, distant, or even cold. Plans may not work out as expected, so be willing to be malleable. Be flexible with accommodating yourself and others. Accept this season for what it is, a time for transition. But have a back-up plan; it is better to have several plans and not need all of them than it is to have too few and need more.
Be reflective. After the holidays, take time to look back and see what did and did not work well. Just because something was done this year, does not mean the following years need to be the same. Talk to friends and family about their favorite traditions. Consider the benefits of doing something totally out of the ordinary such as a cruise or destination holiday. The excitement of a new place every year might be just what is needed going forward. A moment of reflection even when it is difficult can be helpful in the future.
This was a hard year for Janice, James, Jack, and all of their families. But they each spent some time during the day acknowledging the difference and while they didn’t want to accept it, they did look forward to doing something new.