Monday, December 23, 2013

Handling Sad Holidays

During the holidays some hearts are happy and light; other hearts are breaking. If you or someone you know finds the season a challenge this year, I hope it will help.

This article is based on an experience I had as a home-based hospice volunteer in Ulster County, NY. It is the first writing I ever sold to a publisher, The LA Times. Here it as it was printed by them and reprinted elsewhere by other publications.

Posted with love, 

Trust Yourself in Handling Sad Holidays

As people unwrapped Christmas presents and basted turkeys, one small 10-year-old girl watched her mother die. The three years' battle with bone cancer ended. By noon angry voices filled the apartment. Relatives argued bitterly about who would take care of her now.

Kate (not her real name) looked at the stack of cards on the coffee table, addressed to her mother, father, and family. The writers had not known that her father had left months ago. 'Tis the season to be jolly! The world's bustle and good cheer pressed in from all sides.

If for you this season of sharing brings loss—of a loved one, your health, a job, your sense of well-being—the following suggestions may help.

Trust yourself. You may not have a lot of answers now, but you can learn them with time. Even when you request advice, it's you who decides which advice is good and which is foolish. You are wiser than you think.

Ask for what you want from friends, family, professionals. Only you know what's best for you. Those who care about you will most likely welcome the information.  If, for example, you dread spending New Year's Eve alone but you aren't sure if you want to accept an invitation, you may want to ask if you can decide at the last minute, or see if a friend would be willing to spend the time with you doing what you think best from moment-to-moment.

Allow your feelings to change. You need not concern yourself about logic or consistency. No one has ever faced your situation and there are no rules. Permit your emotions to come and go; they will change as your beliefs do.

Let others take responsibility for their feelings. Some people, in their love and concern for you, will want you to "cheer right up" or "let it all out, now" so that they can feel OK. You don't have to. Spend time with people who are most comfortable with you, however you are.

Reminisce if you want to. Share memories with friends and family. Write things down or daydream. Fond memories heal deep wounds. People only dwell on matters they never complete. Your thoughts will move on when you are ready.

Be very kind to yourself. Your natural desire to take care of yourself and those you love will guide you far better than harsh self-disciplines. I once asked someone what she was afraid would happen if she followed her desire "to lie on the couch and hug my pillow all day." "I might never get up!" she yelled at me—and she got up.

Share from your heart. What you see, feel and learn during this period of heightened sensitivity is unique. It has value. Communicating about your experience to those who are open creates new bonds and strengthens old ones.

Organizations such as Hospice, crises centers, and self-help groups can be good sources support.

When someone you care about is dealing with grief during the holidays:

Maintain contact. Of course, you don't know what to do or what to say. You get 10 points for showing up. If you are embarrassed, your friend probably is too. Share that. Listening without judgment relieves more pain than all the helpful advice you can muster. You probably don't really know what your loved one should do anyway.

If distance prevents a visit or you really can't handle it, write. If you don't know what to say, just say that you care. It will mean as much as flowing prose.

Ask what you can do. Make your offer specific. "Would you like to go out to dinner?" or "May I pick up the kids?" means a lot more than the next-to-worthless, "Call me if you need anything." People who are in pain often find it hard to reach out, especially if the do not know what you want to do for them.

Permit your friend to be unreasonable. Life makes little sense to him (or her) right now. Trust that he is doing the best he can. His reactions to you or the situation have little or nothing to do with you; avoid taking them personally. Offer your patience and understanding as a gift, the most valuable one you have.

Invite her (or him) to any event you usually would. "But won't it be awkward?" seems a poor reason to exclude someone who is going through a rough time. Respect her wishes. She may not want to attend, but offer the opportunity and support in case she's worried about it too.

Include memories in your conversation if you both want to. "It's feeling that I can't talk about her anymore that's the hardest," a bereft mother stated. I want to remember the times we laughed and watched her grow, especially on holidays. People act as if she never existed, as if we stopped loving her. I feel more alone then."

Follow your heart; it's wiser than your mind in matters of compassion. You may feel helpless; may even be helpless. It's OK to cry together. If your tears turn to laughter, that's fine too.

When December 25 came again to 11-year-old Kate, her older sister asked what she wanted to do. "I think we should have an extremely large tree, with lots of presents under it, mostly for me," she replied, "and I think we should have a very good time." In her short number of years, Kate had found a lot of answers—herself.