The holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving, can be a time of great joy with family, friends and tradition, but not everyone feels jolly this time of year. If you’ve experienced a loss, gone through a breakup or simply feel alone, the holidays can put a spotlight on your grief.
“Feelings don’t obey the calendar,” says psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them. “While others may be more comfortable if you’re happy during the holidays, it’s not always possible or necessary to stay positive after a loss. Grief and emotional healing take time, and you can’t push the river.”
Here are a few ways to make it past New Year’s Day even if your spirits aren’t merry and bright.
1. Manage your expectations.
The overwhelming culture around the holidays is that it’s a supremely happy time when families bond and loved ones celebrate each other. “The commercialized view of the holidays makes them appear flawless, but life is full of loss, change and challenges,” says Kristen Lee Costa, Ed.D., professor of behavioral sciences at Northeastern University in Boston and author of Reset: Make the Most of Your Stress. But don’t fall for this myth of mirth: “Hallmark moments are few and far between,” she says.
“It’s important to embrace the fact that the holidays are going to be difficult,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. If you enter the season knowing it could be rough, you’ll be more resilient. If you’ve lost a loved one, you will miss that person. If you don’t get along with your family, you may feel lonely and angry. But you will get through it. Reach out to people who are also enduring difficulties, she recommends, and chat with them about what works and what doesn’t. Join a support group or enlist the help of a therapist.
2. RSVP with “maybe next year.”
Be kind to yourself. “It’s perfectly acceptable to opt out of certain holiday events that may bring up pain,” says Kristen Meekhof, who at age 33 lost her husband to cancer and wrote A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years .
3. Create new traditions.
You don’t want to opt out forever, though. “Ignoring the holidays may only delay the healing period. This season will continue to be difficult until the loss is faced,” Morin says. Instead of forgoing the holiday hubbub altogether, she recommends starting new rituals. If you’ve always spent Hanukkah in a snowy destination, for example, move the celebration to the beach. If you’ve always hosted Christmas dinner, let someone else take over. Or use this time of year to embark on an annual adventure with friends. Start a holiday-season support group and schedule regular meetings. Steps such as these enable you to form new positive associations this time of year.
4. Make room for memory.
If you’ve lost someone, include remembrance in your new traditions. Share stories of the loved one that make you laugh. Write a letter to him or her on New Year’s Eve. Engage in something that helps you feel connected to that person. It can be as simple as watching a certain movie you both loved or eating takeout Chinese food like the old days. After losing her husband, Morin and her in-laws decided to honor him by taking exciting trips each year in his memory. They’ve been skydiving, white-water rafting and mule-riding in the Grand Canyon.
Helping others is a proven blues buster, and it can be especially potent this time of year. Visiting kids in the hospital, checking in on elderly neighbors or preparing meals for the homeless helps take the focus off of yourself and can reinforce the many ways that you are fortunate. Charity work reminds both you and those you help that there is good in the world. You might also consider hosting a fundraiser in memory of a lost loved one.
“Building or creating something out of the death can lead to an empowering feeling and facilitate our connection to that person,” says Pete Shrock, vice president of strategy and design at Comfort Zone Camp, which works with 7- to 17-year-olds who are coping with grief after the death of a parent, legal guardian or sibling.
6. Schedule yourself.
If you know you’ll have several days off work or to yourself, “carefully plan how you want to spend your time” so you don’t end up hosting your own pity party, Morin advises. Schedule at least one grounding activity each day that can help you get out of your own head and mark the time until “normal” life resumes. Your plans don’t need to be social: Take an exercise class; volunteer at a local soup kitchen; go see a play or concert. Even if it’s just “go to mall to buy present for nephew,” write it down in your calendar and then do it.
7. Watch out for the post-holiday blues.
While the lead-up to the holidays can be stressful, studies indicate that the days and weeks immediately following a big celebration are the toughest. A recent analysis of the effect of Christmas on mental health found that visits to psychiatric emergency services wane in the days before Dec. 25 but spike in the days afterward. Likewise, suicides and suicide attempts were more common around New Year’s than at Christmas. The commotion of holiday planning may keep people busy and distracted, but once the big day is done, it can be easy to feel lonely and let down.
Plan not just for the celebrations but for the days afterward, too. Schedule lunches with friends and family; start a creative or home-improvement project; take a day trip or two.
8. Let yourself experience joy.
“Sometimes people feel guilty about celebrating the holidays, even if the loss occurred years before,” says Shonda Lackey, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist. “Just because you are able to have a good time, or even an OK time, during the holidays doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about your loved one.”