Holidays are mile markers. We experience the same predictable food and rituals that provide family cohesion and social stability. We might also be reminded of events that have impacted our families over the past year. For my family, it is the loss of my dad six months ago. Yes, there is always something we can give thanks for but when there has been hardship, traumatic loss, a frightening diagnosis, unexpected separations – the holidays can be difficult. So, how do we face the holidays?
Recognize that you aren’t alone. Sometimes people who have suffered trauma feel like they are looking through a glass at a world that is preparing to enjoy a holiday they can neither feel nor be a part of. There might be a feeling of estrangement from normal life. It is not uncommon. Regardless of what you see in the media or read on the greeting cards, lots of folks are carrying emotional pain through the holidays. You are not alone – you are human.
|Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Extension|
Sometimes a traumatic event has taken place near or around the holidays. As a result, the season may become a trigger for painful memories, feelings and physical stress. Essential to the nature of trauma is the mix of knowing and not knowing, of intrusion and numbing, of being unable to remember and unable to forget, of facing the trauma and of avoiding it. Picture that as you are making the journey of recovery, on one side of the road is the pain, memory and impact of the trauma and on the other side is everyday life, play, work, joy, laughter, holidays. It is the courage to go back and forth from each side that actually moves you forward on the road to recovery. If you only look at the trauma you won’t find the strength to move forward and if you completely avoid the trauma you will never find a place for it.
During the holiday season, is likely you will have a mix of such feelings – there may be tears as you bake the pumpkin pie; a wish to be with family and a fear of how you will feel without a loved one there. I experienced a bit of this over the weekend as we got out Christmas decorations. The room was scattered with boxes and I suddenly thought of how we couldn’t have set up in such chaos with an infant around, whose first Christmas this would have been. There may be the longing to have your life the way it used to be and the dread of facing a holiday with things so different. It is OK – take one step at a time – you are allowed to change.Many people find that reaching out to others helps them feel most thankful during the holidays. Feeling unable to do a conventional holiday, people have shared joy by serving meals at shelters, taking pets to nursing homes; entertaining at senior citizen centers, packing boxes for troops, cooking for a family that has suffered in a similar way. I know that my mom continued the tradition my parents started of giving to the community giving tree for children’s needs.
As you face the holidays, remember that recovery is not an event, it is a process.