HANDLING THE HOLIDAYSBy Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D.
If you're recently separated or divorced, avoiding the holiday blues can be a challenge. But with a little planning, creativity, and courage, you can cope with -- and even enjoy -- the holiday season this year.
If you're facing the holiday season alone for the first time, you may be expecting to feel lonely and in pain for the duration. Even so, the holidays can also be an opportunity for spiritual renewal, personal growth, and creative expression -- even in the midst of divorce. Here are some unique and creative ways to manage and experience this challenging time of year.
Thanksgiving feels like a particularly cruel label to put on a holiday celebration when you're separated or divorced. Yet being thankful is a very powerful way to help yourself let go and to appreciate what you have in your life. It's almost impossible to be "hurt-full" and "thank-full" at the same time.
It's time to thank yourself! Write in your journal about some of the following (you pick the ones that fit best). Reading what you've written when times are tough will help you develop a sense of pride and gratitude for yourself.
- Thank yourself for being a survivor: you could have given up and you didn't.
- Thank yourself for beginning to see the positive lessons in what appeared to be a negative situation.
- Thank yourself for facing your fears.
- Thank yourself for having the courage to change.
- Thank yourself for getting as far as you have on your own.
- Thank yourself for risking new things.
- Thank yourself for being courteous and cooperative when dealing with your ex -- no matter what.
Listen to your inner voice and to how you may be giving yourself negative messages on a daily basis. Notice how you miss opportunities to be thankful during the day: for instance, today, you might have been thankful for your health, for your children, for your good friends, etc. Perhaps you're finding it difficult to be thankful for anything right now.
With practice, however, you can always find something to be grateful about; the ability to find good in almost any situation is what enables people to survive and even thrive through challenging times. So before going to bed tonight, think of three things you did or received today for which you are thankful, and allow yourself to really feel gratitude for these gifts. Don't diminish your accomplishment: whether you pulled a child from a burning building or cooked dinner for yourself for the first time, you should feel really proud and grateful.
Write the following affirmation and put it where you will see it every day: "I am now ready and willing to look at my present life as a gift with thanks and gratitude for what I am learning about myself."
Christmas and Hanukkah
When Christmas and Hanukkah roll around, it's hard not to think of past holidays spent as a family -- particularly if your kids won't be with you this year. Holiday songs can trigger deep emotional pain, especially if associated with a particular scene in your mind that includes your ex-spouse in a family scenario. If you have a way with words, you might try writing different words to go with the holiday song -- words that are more representative of your new life. (Again, make this positive: don't compose songs about how you wish you or your ex were dead!)
If it would be painful to attend the church or synagogue you attended with your spouse -- or if there's a chance of running into your ex with his/her new love there -- then consider finding a new place to worship. Again, practice looking at this in a positive way: "I have the opportunity to meet new people and experience a different kind of service," rather than, "I'm being forced out of my own church/synagogue by that rotten ex-spouse of mine." Consider going with a friend to his/her place of worship, or try something completely different -- like attending a solstice celebration -- as a novel way to experience the holidays.
Create new rituals and traditions for you and your children. When my friend Allan doesn't have his children on Christmas day, he takes them on a tour of New York City the week before Christmas. He has created a new tradition with them that they'll remember all their lives.
You can even choose to be alone -- as long as it's a choice you make consciously, rather than something that was forced on you by circumstance. You can spend the day journaling, walking in the woods, or being pampered at a day spa. Celebrate yourself and create your own special ritual. Buy yourself a great present or two. Then make -- or buy -- the seasonal foods that you gave up because your spouse didn't like them.
If decorating a tree is an integral part of the holidays for you, then buy or make several new ornaments that represent change and new life to mix in with the old. Create some new ornaments that symbolize the new you -- these can be as basic or fancy as you want.
Forgiveness can be one of the most important gifts you give to yourself over the holidays. Write a forgiveness note addressed to yourself, wrap it up and put it under the tree to be opened on Christmas; for Hanukkah, you could write eight different shorter notes.
Help out at a shelter or homeless project. Giving of yourself to others is an excellent way of coping during the season. If you won't be with your children, visit a children's hospital or institution and volunteer your time.
If your breakup is recent, give the gift that was intended for your spouse to a homeless person, or take the money you would have spent on your spouse and give it to a needy family or cause.
Take advantage of the singles retreats offered at this time of year. Invite other singles into your home. Let them know you'll honor their emotions if they will honor yours. You could also create a "friend family" to celebrate with: ask some friends who are in the same boat (divorcees, widows, or singles whose families live far away) to share a festive meal. You may actually find you enjoy this more than the traditional family gathering -- which for many involves old arguments and resentments dragged forward from year to year. As they say: you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family.
If your family (parents, siblings, cousins) is warm and supportive, then the obvious action is to go home for the holidays. Let them nurture you, and give up your need to be a strong problem-solver for a while.
Keep your eyes open for a biography or autobiography of a great artist/playwright/author who has experienced loss. You'll see that in most cases, the negative energy of loss can be turned into a creative pursuit with a positive outcome. When you find such a book or video, wrap it up in holiday paper and give it to yourself as a gift.
Going to a warm and sunny place, if you can afford it, can be a healing experience. For instance, walking or swimming into the warm waters of the Caribbean can help warm a cold, aching heart. Use the warm water to create a cleansing ritual as preparation for the New Year; if money's tight, you can also create a ritual to "wash your troubles away" in your bathtub at home.
Stay open to the idea that the universe is supplying "signs" in abundance, especially at this time of year. Request guidance from a higher power, and be open to actually receiving it. Look for the miracles -- large or small -- that surround you.
You'll have lots of questions as the holidays approach. Where should I go during the holidays? Should I take a vacation somewhere exotic, visit friends or family, or just stay home? Do I have to pretend to be happy and joyous for the sake of others? How can I be happy without my spouse and/or kids to share them with me? The list goes on.
Listen to your inner guidance during this time. If you need to be alone, that's okay. You can choose that. It's an option. You may have to create some new traditions for your kids to help them through their own holiday blues -- and cheer yourself up in the process. You might find these new traditions to be a great joy and inspiration -- a reason to get out of bed.
If you do decide to visit family and friends, you might let them know the following ahead of time:
- I may need to leave your home earlier than you expect me to (I get tired easily these days because I'm under a lot of stress)
I may need to take a walk by myself after dinner (it's hard to be around happy families for too long a time).
I may cry unexpectedly when I hear certain music (I have memories of the good times and it's hard to hold back the tears).
I may not eat all the food and goodies you offer me (my appetite hasn't been what it used to be -- maybe I'm finding all this "hard to swallow").
Take care of yourself: be the first one you think about this holiday season. Next year, it will hurt a little less: next year, there will be a little more joy in your life. By next year, you may even be ready to help someone else through this tough time.
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, spiritual counselor , and personal coach practicing in Hawthorne, NY . She is the author of I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing after the Death of a Loved One. She has personally experienced divorce twice, and is now happily married.