When children are young and lives are vibrant – with Santa visiting, gifts around the tree and family arriving for festive gatherings, the holidays are wonderful.
But that’s not the case for many people, nor is it necessarily the case for those same people later in life.
As the lights of the people in the photo of that family gathering wink out one by one, the family shrinks, especially if the family does not expand to include new members – not that anyone can be replaced. Lingering sadness often replaces joy.
Eventually, these people who were once young and eagerly awaiting Santa and grandparents mature into people who have sustained significant loss in their lives.
I know. Not only are my parents gone, but so are my cousins and siblings. Their children are busy with far-away lives of their own, with little connection and even less in common.
Flickering holiday lights become painful reminders of what has been lost, and of the people now absent from the holiday table.
If you’re not one of those people feeling blue, it’s easy to offer well-meaning platitudes such as, “Well, focus on what you do have,” but that’s not always possible nor helpful. On the receiving end, it feels like a rebuke, a criticism and is inevitably the end of the conversation.
Unfortunately, those types of well-meaning comments only make things worse, because they, intentionally or not, infer that the person is somehow substandard, ungrateful or not trying hard enough.
That’s often as far as possible from the truth.
Some pain is hidden, not put on display for others to see. Internal family strife – marriages hanging on by a thread – painful memories of being omitted from or forgotten at the holidays.
There’s little more painful than being the only family member at a gathering to not receive a gift of some type – not because you’re unliked, but because you’re simply inconsequential – irrelevant. Forgotten. My mother always kept an “emergency gift” in the house for the situation or someone showing up with an extra guest.
No wonder people dread holidays where they feel obligated to show up, smiling, all the while making themselves vulnerable for more painful memories in the making.
For some people, these memories stack up like a hay mound, While they push them aside most of the year, unwelcome memories come rushing back in November and it wouldn’t take much to push the person over the edge. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The political divisiveness within the US these past few years, and especially recently, regardless of which “side” of it you’re on, is brutal. Families forever divided. Worse yet, what used to be some level of politeness and decorum has pretty much disappeared as can be seen in any social media thread on FaceBook.
Those words and attacks are cumulative and hurt too.
Reading and seeing hatefulness targeted at people, things or principles that you love is further depressing – as is a steady diet served up daily of the same.
Then, there’s the literal coldness, darkness and greyness of the season. No color other than grey and white if you live in the north.
Companies make cutbacks in December, trimming the budget for the upcoming year. It’s very difficult to celebrate not knowing how you’re going to eat or make the house/car payment next year.
With all of this combined, it’s no wonder that depression and suicides increase during the holidays.
People are hurting.
What Can You Do?
How can you help or at least not make things worse for someone? Remember, people are very good at hiding the fact that they are suffering – so you may be entirely unaware of the negative impact of your comments or actions.
Historically, there has been a great deal of shame associated with mental health issues, including depression – having been viewed as a weakness, defect or character flaw. During the past few years, words derisively thrown around like “snowflake” have made things even worse. Since when did name-calling with the intention of making someone feel bad convey any benefit at all?
But guess what? It’s up to every single one of us to make a difference and assure that love wins.
Please reach out to caregivers, the elderly, people who live alone, who are disabled or live in precarious circumstances.
If this is you, and you’re the one sufferring, please read on. There’s help here – for others to be more cognizant and help for you too.
Here are 20 things you can to do help yourself and others get through this tough time. Please feel free to share and post this article widely.
- Live Love – The number one thing you can do is to say and demonstrate to your family and friends that you love them. And yes, actions speak louder than words.
You never know which time will be the last time you get to do that – but inevitably, one time will be. Don’t lose the opportunity. Share love in your own way.
If you can’t say those exact words, that’s OK. Tell them by finding a song that represents how you feel about them and send them a link or post on their social media timeline. (Ok, maybe “You’re So Vain” is not a good idea.)
A few years ago a friend told me that this video, Humble and Kind, by Tim McGraw is how they think of me. I cried. Notice that all these years later, I still remember her kindness, what she said, my sister of heart. She will never know how much I needed that on that particular day.
My life is so blessed to have her in it, and when I feel down, I play this song and remind myself that she loves me. And how much I love her. Then, I feel better.
Music touches our souls in ways nothing else can.
2. Soften Your Words and Count to 10 – People are on edge at the holidays and sometimes say things they don’t mean. That means you and other people too. We’re all guilty on this one.
Softening your words won’t hurt you one bit, may well help someone else and avoid unintentional hurt feelings.
For example, it’s probably not a good idea to refer to someone as an idiot. Even if that’s your honest opinion, it does not need to exit your mouth. Something in that vein is not going to be well received and you’ll alienate them along with other family members, probably forever.
Don’t let frustration or anger cause you to say things that aren’t helpful. I count to 10. If that doesn’t work, I count to 10 again, more slowly, breathing deeply with each number. If that still doesn’t work, I probably need to leave, at least long enough to gain perspective. Sometimes that means forever.
Consider alternate ways to convey what you have to say that is loving, more likely to actually be “heard” and unlikely to push the listener away. “You seem really unhappy lately. I’m really concerned about you. What’s going on?” is a much more positive and caring approach than, “What’s wrong with you, you’re acting crazy?”
Can’t do that? Then silence might be a good option and less damaging than toxic words that can’t be recalled. Unfortunately, there is no rewind and it’s even easier to err on social media than in person.
At one time or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of something like this. Hateful words really hurt.
If someone hurts you, especially repeatedly, consider several of the solutions later in this article.
3. No Manipulation – We’ve all seen it – the passive aggressive manipulator in the family.
That’s bait to draw attention to themselves and to get your goat. Avoid them if possible, and if not possible, don’t bite. If they are making you angry, you’re not in control of you anymore and they are in charge. Learn to recognize this behavior so you can avoid it.
I always think of my Dad’s Hoosier farmer advice. “Never mud-wrestle with a pig ’cause you can’t win. You get muddy, the pig enjoys it and the spectators can’t tell the difference.”
Don’t take the bait.
4. Find Your Happy Place – If you’re feeling stressed, find music that you enjoy and that is calming. Make a playlist. Singing along can be downright joyful.
Intentionally find an activity to calm yourself. (This excludes drinking alcohol😊)
Transport yourself to a feel-good place of beauty, even if it’s only in your own mind. The power of the mind is amazing!
5. Make Nice Noises – A customer told me about “nice noises” years ago. At first, I thought she was disingenuous, but then I realized this was actually a brilliant coping strategy in situations that can be awkward but that are NOT personally endangering or violating. Like when you get stuck beside someone you really don’t want to interact with.
Just smile, nod, take a bite of something and make nice noises. Politics is not a “nice noise,” just in case you were wondering. Generally, neither is religion.
Conversation hint: Ask about something THEY enjoy. They will love you and it gets you off the hook for saying much at all.
6. Draw the Boundary Line – This one can be tough, but you absolutely need to.
If lecherous Uncle So-And-So intentionally grabs your behind (unless you are his wife or partner and behind-grabbing is acceptable in your relationship in that venue), all bets are off. Say what you need to say (NOT nice noises), with dignity and grace, and remove yourself from the situation, and probably the premises. Do not go where Uncle So-And-So will be in the future.
This occurred in my family. My (step)Dad playfully grabbed my Mom’s behind while passing behind her as she was cooking a holiday meal at the stove. She turned around with a cast iron skillet ready to wallop him, thinking it was his brother who was in the house and had inappropriately touched her in that manner in the past. She stopped herself just in time, stammering that she was sorry, she thought it was Uncle So-And-So.
My Dad knew in a heartbeat what was happening and asked my Mom directly. She affirmed. I walked in the door right about then, a teenager. Dad turned and asked me if So-And-So grabbed my behind. Startled, and not knowing what was happening, I shook my head yes.
Uncle So-And-So was in the living room. My Dad retrieved So-And-So and went outside where they had a rather noisy discussion that I desperately wanted to hear. Mom would not let me crack the kitchen window open to listen, and the bathroom window was painted shut.
Uncle So-And-So left, never to return to another family gathering.
Dad asked Mom and me why we didn’t tell him before. We explained that we didn’t realize Uncle So-And-So was doing that to each other too, feared we might not be believed nor did we want to rock the boat and cause family drama. In other words, we just wanted to get through the day. As a teenager, I was terribly embarrassed on several levels too.
If I had that to do over again, I would have dealt with this in an entirely different way, drawing a very firm boundary, and much sooner. Ah, the benefits of age and hindsight.
Mom apparently had drawn that line and thought Uncle So-And-So had violated said boundary. Of course she had no idea that he was inappropriately touching me as well or there would have been hell to pay.
Thank goodness Dad caused the situation never to occur again. HIS boundary worked.
7. Give Yourself a Mental Vacation – If your family is accepting of or makes excuses for Uncle So-And-So’s behavior or is otherwise toxic to your wellbeing, reconsider your relationship with those family members.
Hint: It’s often situations like this that underlie holiday depression surrounding loss. We grieve not only people we love and lose, but also situations and people that turn out to be different than we thought. We grieve what we thought we had along with unfulfilled possibilities. In a way, it’s the death of the living.
The “loss” should be borne by Uncle So-And-So, not you, but that may not be the case. Spend time with the people who are good to and for you.
If you need to terminate relationships, create something new for the holidays – even going someplace different entirely.
The Caribbean is nice this time of year. I could walk on the beach alone on Christmas Day without a second thought. There are much worse things that your own company on your own terms.
8. Start a new Tradition – This year, we began a new tradition and celebrated the feast day of St. Lucia to celebrate light emerging from darkness.
Of course this speaks to the winter solstice as well. This lovely tradition is practiced in Sweden (you can see a video here) – and now in my family too.
Next year, we’ll sing as we walk the labyrinth with our candles, perhaps with lovely snow.
The labyrinth won’t always be in our family, but I hope we are creating wonderful memories while it is.
9. No Bullying – Avoid the bully and avoid being the bully. Bullying is not always physical. Learn what constitutes bullying, recognize the signs and commit to avoiding it in relationships.
Many people don’t realize that there is a fine line between teasing someone and bullying them. Be cognizant so your well-meaning behavior doesn’t slide into something you don’t intend. Hurting others, human or animal, isn’t fun.
If you see bullying, intervene in the best way you can.
10. Be a LightWorker – Reach out to others who need assistance or can’t help themselves. Giving back is a wonderful way to elevate your spirits.
Someone once said, “When times of darkness arise, look for the lightworkers.”
We all have days when we need to seek the lightworkers, and other times when we can be the lightworker.
11. Pitch In – Offer to help with family holiday gatherings.
That might include cleaning in advance, decorating, cooking, having the gathering at your house, hosting the gathering at a restaurant, purchasing food, shopping or anything else to be helpful. Often the best memories aren’t as a “guest” but as an involved family member, laughing and chattering as you do things together.
12. Give of Yourself – Defocus on money and gifts. Think about gifts of time or involvement.
Give someone a gift of a day helping in the yard, a day helping to downsize, a lunch out together at a favorite place, their favorite meal frozen into lunch portions, a class together – something that says, “I love being with you.” For older people especially, these gifts mean the world.
Consider gifts such as pet supplies, a gift card for prescriptions or a fruit box delivery. If your loved one is a genealogist, maybe a DNA test or a subscription to a service like MyHeritage or Ancestry that can bring them pleasure every day. These types of gifts keep on giving and improve the life of the recipient throughout the year.
13. Gift Heirlooms – As you get older, consider giving heirloom items such as Christmas ornaments, jewelry, mementos and such to the next generation, along with an accompanying story, of course.
Spread the love.
14. Practice Gratitude – Tell people why you appreciate them.
“Aunt Susie, you always make the best pie,” or, “You’ve always been such a positive influence in the lives of my children.” You don’t know when your words may lift someone from a dark place.
15. Be a Compassionate Listener – If someone tells you they hate the holidays, there’s a reason (or two or three.)
Don’t try to tell them otherwise or why they shouldn’t feel that way. Just listen and be supportive. Sometimes the question, ‘What can I do?” says it all – conveying that you care.
16. Be Kind & Share – All creatures, all the time, not just at the holidays.
Need and humanity know no season.
17. Don’t Drink too much. Just look what it did to Kermit!
So many regrets are born of celebrations gone awry. Tongues loosen, social filters are lost and reflexes while driving are impaired. Seriously, sometimes you need every second possible behind the wheel. I’ll spare you the convincing photo of my now-deceased friend’s car.
You can help by being a designated driver or calling an Uber.
18. Practice Self-Care – Cry if you need to. We all do. Then go to the gym or engage in a physical activity requiring movement to get the endorphins flowing.
Pamper yourself. Take a walk or a bath. Rub wonderfully scented lotion on your skin. Treat yourself to your favorite meal. Buy flowers, bubble bath or maybe lavender oil.
What do you really enjoy that makes you feel good?
19. Remember the Animals – Pets depend on humans, even those who neglect or abandon them. They have no choice. Animals feel confusion, fear, emotional and physical pain, coldness and hunger.
Make a difference in the life of a sentient being that came to depend on someone who betrayed them and can’t help themselves.
Thousands of animals die in shelters and worse every single day. Don’t purchase pets as gifts. When the time is right, save a life – rescue an animal in dire need.
This isn’t entirely altruistic, because while you will literally save your furry friend’s life, you will also be amply rewarded all their days an this Earth. An animal’s trust, loyalty and love is undying and will lift you up. I promise.
20. HALT Depression and Suicide
The holiday season is a really, really tough time of year. People we think of as strong are fragile. We, as humans, are all more or less fragile all of the time.
Depression is the darkest of places, with no light, hope or escape. It’s like descending into the cave of doom entirely alone.
People who commit suicide don’t necessarily want to die, they just want the pain to stop. People who consider suicide feel like there is no other viable way to relieve their pain.
They often feel like no one cares or that people may care, but they are beyond or unworthy of saving. They feel that the situation in which they find themselves is both devoid of hope and irreversible.
If this is you, on the cliff edge – HALT.
HALT reminds us to take a deep breath, a step back and ask ourselves if we are feeling too:
It’s very easy to get spun up and upset about something and these 4 factors cause our emotions to spiral out of control.
Depression is a black, devastating hellhole – but, please, don’t do anything that can’t be undone. Instead:
- Eat something
- Walk, run, go to the gym or someplace to release anger or pain in a non-damaging way. (My friend calls me the weed terrorist because I weed the garden when I’m upset.)
- Talk to a friend, suicide helpline or just go someplace to be among people.
- Go to bed or take a nap.
Pretty much everything looks better in the morning.
If you’re considering harming yourself, or you know someone who is, please reach out and seek help. You and they are not alone.
It’s better to be “nosey” and wrong than right and too late.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Suicide Prevention Helpline – 800-273-8255 (veterans press 1)
Text – 741741
1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-784-2433
LGBTQ Suicide Hotline (Trevor Project) – 1-866-488-7386
International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) lists resources, lifelines and crisis centers worldwide
Deaf Hotline – 1-800-799-4TTY
- Suicide Prevention Awareness
- Suicide Awareness and Prevention
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- If you type “depression” or “suicide” into the Facebook search engine, you are provided with a list of options which includes:
Please share this article widely. You just never know who could use a little help.
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