By Kiarma Webster, MSW, LCSW
For most people, spending time with family is their favorite part of the holidays and also the most stressful part of the holidays. One thing we can count on in our families is change. Within our families marriages begin and end, people are born, people die and relationships change. Many of these changes, whether they are joyful or sorrowful, can add additional challenges to the holiday season. Here are a few ideas that may be helpful when coping with family changes during the holidays.
When someone you love has died, the holiday season can become a painful reminder of your loss. For many people, the holiday season is also a time of peace and reflection. Consider making the holidays a time to celebrate the life of the loved one you lost. Some families are comforted by sharing happy memories of their 'lost loved one while sharing a holiday meal. Consider establishing a new holiday tradition in the memory of your loved one. For example, one family always gives their deceased grandfather's favorite food a place of prominence at every Thanksgiving dinner. That is the family's way of celebrating their grandfather while celebrating the holiday. When a visitor comments on how unusual it is to see chicken tacos included in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, the family happily explains about their grandfather's love of chicken tacos. Another family decided to forgo their holiday gift exchange one year and donate the money they usually spend on gifts to the American Cancer Society in honor of a family member they lost to cancer.
Most of us have a long list of things we want to accomplish during the holiday season, but a grieving person can be easily overwhelmed. Don't try to do everything you usually do during the holidays. Preserve your energy by trimming your schedule and focusing on a few of the things that are most important to you. In future years, when you are feeling better, you can always resume your full schedule of holiday commitments and traditions. Your friends will understand if you are unable to attend their holiday event.
Because holidays can be a time of overindulgence, it can be tempting to try to numb the pain of grief by overindulging in food or alcohol. Don't do it; it only leads to bigger problems later. When you feel lonely, don't hesitate to call a friend. Some people are reluctant to utilize their support systems during the holidays because they believe their friends are too busy for them or they worry that their pain may damper the holiday happiness of others. Don't be afraid to reach out to the people who care about you. Many people find comfort in focusing on the religious significance of the holidays and allow faith traditions to soothe their grief.
The holidays can pose a special set of challenges to people and families adjusting to separation or divorce. Balance new rituals with pre-divorce traditions. If there are children in your family, involve them in a discussion of how your reconfigured family will celebrate the holidays. Explain to them that holiday traditions will continue but in a different way.
Holiday visitation schedules can be confusing and disruptive for children, but they don't have to be. Plan your children's holiday visitation schedule as early as possible and begin discussing the plan with them. Children adapt best when they know what to expect. Some children worry that their parent will be sad when they are away. Reassure your kids that you will be okay while they are with the other parent. If your children seem stressed or cranky when transitioning between the two homes, try not to take their attitudes personally. Change can be hard for everyone, even little ones.
The holidays can also be challenging for people who are experiencing positive family changes. For newlyweds, the holidays can bring opportunities to merge new and old family traditions. Some newlyweds struggle with how to split their holiday time between their families. This can become even more complicated when visiting involves traveling long distances. How to decide if you should spend Thanksgiving with one spouse's East Coast relatives or the other spouse's local ones? And what about Christmas? For these newly married couples, the holidays offer a chance to practice their skills in good communication and compromise.
For some new parents, the holidays are their first opportunity to introduce their extended family to their new baby. Splitting the holidays between two or more sets of new grandparents can require tricky negotiation. Try to keep an open mind and be creative. It is not uncommon for families to celebrate holidays on a different date than the formal holiday. When my children were small, the years we spent Christmas Day in Chicago with my family, we would celebrate "Christmas" again in St. Louis several days later with my husband's family. The children LOVED having two Christmases. Families with people who work on holidays grow accustomed to celebrating holidays on alternate dates and may be able to offer creative suggestions.
Take care of yourself this holiday season by getting enough rest, sleep and exercise. Reach out to others who care about you for advice and support. Don't allow yourself to become overwhelmed. Approach it one day at a time, one holiday at a time and know that it will always get easier as time goes on. Remember, BJC EAP is always here to help.