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November 21, 2013

What to Do When the Holidays Suck (the Life Out of You).

Photo: Dennis Lapets, Flickr

Last year, Thanksgiving arrived six weeks after my mother died, barely 10 days after her memorial service. Christmas rolled around a month later.

I wanted nothing to do with turkeys, trees, or “festivities” of any kind.

I was raw with pain and couldn’t imagine either holiday without her.

Years ago, I was dumped right after Halloween. My (younger) brother had just announced his engagement. I came home for Thanksgiving feeling that my jealousy and heartbreak were throbbing visibly like some beacon of loserdom. It wasn’t any better at Christmas, or on New Year’s Eve which I spent with my cat.

We are supposed to have Happy Holidays. That’s the promise, the expectation, and (dare I say) the hype. Every kiss begins with “K.” Families are together loving each other and fighting over croissants. Everyone everywhere is talking about the Thanksgiving cooking, how to get the hot toy of the season or what they’re doing New Year’s Eve.

If you aren’t feeling it, what you are feeling is extra miserable, left out and misunderstood. It’s a marathon of misery that begins in late October and runs through the beginning of January.

You can’t shut it all out unless you want to go on a two month retreat in the Himalayas.

You can, however, do some things to make it better.

1. Do Something for Somebody Else.

Last year at this time, I was mostly lying on my couch, crying. I couldn’t imagine Thanksgiving with an empty chair where my mother should be. I couldn’t imagine going to someone else’s house and trying to act happy. I couldn’t, actually, imagine taking a shower.

Then, somehow, I got roped into volunteering at a local community center that fed hundreds of people on Thanksgiving. Before I knew it, I’d agreed to run the kitchen. The organization was in trouble, fundraising hadn’t happened, and they needed money and donations of prepared food. Otherwise, hundreds of people living below the poverty line would miss the generous feast they had counted on for years.

I got up and took a shower. I started hustling on Facebook and raised thousands of dollars in a few days. I bought two carloads of pies, potatoes, rolls, cranberries, celery and sweet butter. I went to the community center at 8:00AM on Thanksgiving day and worked until 2:00PM without stopping to go to the bathroom.

I looked at the people sitting at tables with full plates and felt alive for the first time since my mother died. It didn’t “fix” my grief, but it made me feel better about the world again.

I’m pretty sure that there are organizations that would love to have your time and expertise to make the holidays better for people who need a hand. Get involved, even if it’s hard to imagine getting dressed right now.

Doing good is good medicine for the most ravaged soul.

2. Turn Off the Television.

We can’t avoid all references to the holidays, but commercial media is an avoidable irritant. If you’ve lost someone you love, every ad about a happy family is going to kill you. (The coffee ad where the son comes home and surprises the family on Christmas morning? I still sob).

If you’re having the first holiday season after a divorce, or a breakup, or you’re just feeling lonely in general, you don’t need to see marriage proposals on the ice rink, in a picturesque blizzard or anywhere else. Because, contrary to what you see on TV, everyone is not proposing or buying hideous diamond necklaces or wrapping scarves around the neck of some really hunky hipster guy, or having Thanksgiving dinner with 20 really cool looking friends in every color of the rainbow,  who appear to be fashion models.

Really. They aren’t.

So maybe avoid commercial TV, and probably commercial radio for a bit. Read a book, or watch PBS, or (my personal favorite) Netflix.

3. Deepen Your Practice.

It’s important to engage in self-care in general, and a huge part of that is doing the things that bring your mind, body and spirit into harmony.

If you meditate, keep meditating. If you don’t, this is a great time to begin sitting with your breath, and letting feelings pass with an acknowledgement but no rumination. The same is true for yoga, whether at home or in a class. Your loss and grief are real, but they don’t have to define your life. The recurrent thoughts that bring tears and knot your stomach are less likely to take over every waking minute if you can experience them and return to the reality of the present moment.

And if you haven’t tried Tonglen practice, it’s my highest recommendation for loving yourself and the world during the darkest times. Or any time. Breathe in the pain of all those who suffer loss and isolation during the holidays. Breathe out love, comfort and compassion.

You are not alone.

4. Go Outside.

It’s a cliché, the notion of gazing at an endless ocean or the miracle of an old forest, but it really does help to put things into perspective.

Feel the snow crunch under your boots, or the sand shifting beneath bare feet and know that you are made of the same stuff that make up this complex, beautiful universe.

You won’t always feel this way because the seasons of your heart will change like the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon or the cycles of the tides. You will have joy again, and pleasure, even though it seems impossible that anything good can live in the stark, gray landscape of your life.

The leaves will grow back, the sun will come up, the tide will come in and you will feel hope and bliss and peace once more.

I wouldn’t say it if if wasn’t so.

 

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Editor: Bryonie Wise

 

 

 

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Jenna B. Wiser Dec 21, 2013 9:19pm

Well said. Love your description Ann. Such a diverse background!

tnbroom Nov 22, 2013 11:10am

… a marathon of misery. Just had to repeat that one out loud, Ann. I detached from holidays awhile ago and now they pass like any other day, except for a chance of better food at least once along the way. Expectations are a things of olden days, and having adopted an attitude similar to the one you shared here, I recommend every single one of the things you suggest to get us out of ourselves ~ it's the spirit of the holiday I try to invest in, not the other stuff… thanks for reminding us to "get in the shower", and let go of the tears, expectations, and disappointments. (That may mean having a good cry in the shower, but hey… nothing wrong with that!)

Nov 21, 2013 4:00pm

This is just so smart. And beautifully told…

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Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”