Surviving the Holidays When You're Sad

Yes, it's been a while since my divorce, but I can still vividly recall my first Christmas alone. Not having kids made the experience even lonelier. I cried, usually by myself, in my car as I arrived to or left parties, feeling like the odd duck, the single person in a sea of couples, and hugely conspicuous as a result.

I had reached a point where I was tired of casual acquaintances approaching me, their expressions full of concern, yet keeping their distance, and saying in an overly loud voice, "Aw, how are you?" as if I was deaf, or worse, had caught a fatal disease. My friends knew better than to bring the divorce up over and over. And I dreaded these encounters with 'almost strangers', and literally just shrank away. The last thing I needed during this celebratory time was a reminder over and over and over of my situation with questions like, "How are you? I am amazed to see you doing so well. How are you carrying on? You look so good." etc. etc. etc.

Giving my own holiday party for the first time also felt strange. There was no one to help me put up the decorations, no host to greet couples at the door as I puttered in the kitchen, and no one to help clean up afterwards. That first time around I had made the mistake of inviting our old couples friends, making Bob's absence even more glaring. Now I know to mix things up, and to arrange for a cleaning service to give my house a once a year cleaning AFTER I've had people over.

That first holiday alone, I had made arrangements to be with family, of course. And everyone was super solicitous and nice. But deep inside I grieved. I missed my familiar Christmas morning rituals at home in my robe, opening our stockings, sipping coffee, and listening to soft traditional music, while our tree lights glittered in the background. We had collected ornaments from every country and state we visited, and they hung on our tree like old friends. We would often loll in bed, savoring our time together, then pack up the car and visit one of the family, his side one year, my side the other year. As Bob walked out the door, he took all those rituals with him.

I didn't think things could get worse, and then New Year's arrived. There was no one to turn to first when the clock struck twelve. My mother turned to my father, my brother to his wife, and the kids turned to each other. Then they turned to me. Talk about feeling left out.

The pain of those first bewildering years is now largely gone. I still find New Year's difficult, and I recall crying last year as the two couples I was with danced slowly in each others' arms. My tears came unbidden, much to my chagrin, for I thought I had come to grips with my situation.

If you are reading this blog because you are in pain, and because it is the middle of the night and you can't sleep, then take heart and know that during divorce or the loss of a loved one we all go through this stage of enormous grief, loneliness, and pain. Sometimes you will literally not know what to do with yourself, because no matter how hard you try to put the divorce behind you and how loyally your follow the advice of your counselors, family, and friends, that deep physical pain remains inside of you, cutting you at the most unexpected times.

I savored the few moments when I could forget about the divorce, when I could laugh and be in the moment. Those small islands of happiness and contentment saved me. As time passed these islands grew larger, and that large sea of unhappiness shrank.

Below is my advice to you this holiday season. I wrote these tips last year, but they are worth revisiting:

If you are going through the first stages of raw grief:
  • Do not spend the holidays alone.
  • Do not spend the holidays with strangers.
  • Spend your days with family.
  • If you do not get along with your family, spend as much time as you can with close friends.
  • If you cannot bear to stay home for the holiday, pick a place you've always wanted to visit, like Vermont or Italy or a local attraction.
  • Do not go alone on a tour group.
  • Bring along a close family member or friend.
  • Do not resurrect a ritual that only you and your spouse shared.
  • Start your own new rituals, like inviting close friends over for a tree decorating ceremony.
If you are feeling less vulnerable and somewhat strong:
  • If you cannot bear to be alone and can't afford to take a trip away, call a homeless shelter or church, and arrange to be among people who are helping others transition through grief or pain. By helping others, you will discover how strong you are. Every time I thought life couldn't get worse, I would encounter someone in worse pain and need. This did not alleviate my own pain, but such a person would bring me outside of myself. It was a powerful feeling to be wanted and needed at a time when I felt like discarded garbage.
  • If you feel too vulnerable to do the above, fill a Christmas stocking for a poor child. The act of filling that stocking will take your mind off your grief.
  • Or visit an elderly person who has no family close by at a nursing home. Bring them something special that they can use, like perfume or scented drawer liners.
  • Help a nonprofit organization arrange their holiday party for their clients and volunteers.
  • Or join a nature group and volunteer to count migrating birds.
Whatever you decide to do, find ways to keep yourself creatively and actively busy. Leave yourself no time to wallow in your loneliness, not unless you feel strong enough to weather your emotions alone.

If you are feeling strong:
  • Sometimes, curling up with a good book, a lovely glass of wine, with your pet in your lap, and surrounded by the sound of beautiful music is more soothing than an evening spent among strangers.
  • Or rent ten movies you've always wanted to see, and hold a mini movie fest at home.
Here are some helpful links:
Image above is from RavX Rawl, entitled, Happy New Year

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My husband and best friend of 12 years just walked out on me, completely unexpected, and while I was not home. I came home to find him gone, a week later he had started whole new life for himself in another town and rented a duplex. I am shocked and hurt, that punched in the gut feeling never goes away and I am lonely, scared, and missing him beyond words. Your blog sounds so much like what I needed. This is my second divorce, the first one after 21 years. I can't help but wonder what it is about me that people who say they love me can't stay. I feel the lonliness and isolation everywhere I go, so just knowing that other people understand and feel the same way helps me to not feel so pathetic.

I hope your journey has improved. In my 50s I don't feel like I have a lot of time left to keep starting over..but I have no choice. We still text, talk, he even meets me for dinner when he has mail. But he says he doesn't love me and needs to figure things out.

I am so hurt and lost that I have no idea how to go about doing my job and getting thru the day. I wish I had some words of comfort and wisdom for others going thru it, but all I have is give it some time and don't beg..it only hurts more.