I could feel something percolating in my body before I was conscious of the shift in my mood. It was in the heaviness of my limbs and the labor of my breath. Then came the familiar spiraling thoughts that spun around and around and around, my mind unspooling into a thousand threads I could not grasp. Anxiety and grief and forlornness swishing together in a depression cocktail.
Like clockwork, it strikes before the holidays. My body knows the calendar before I even think to order Christmas cards. My body can sense the passing of time. It does not let me forget.
For the past three winter seasons since my husband passed away, I get a terrible case of the holiday blues. It manifests itself in a total body reaction.
When a loss is fresh and raw, grief is turbulent. But the passing of time tempers our feelings, and grief settles into an ebb and flow until one day we realize the molten lava of our emotions have hardened into the igneous rock of acceptance. We have the evidence of the fiery times of our past, but it is no longer hot enough to burn us. This is why grief is categorized as a temporary psychological disorder. It doesn’t continue with the same intensity. One day you will wake up with a manageable version that you are able to shove into a compartment of your heart, like a junk drawer for the emotions you don’t want to deal with anymore.
You won’t always have complete control over these feelings though. Sometimes we need to open the junk drawer when it gets too full.
I call it the “grog.” Not the alcohol kind of grog. Grief fog. Grog.
When the grog finds me and I’m stuck in certain feelings, I become resentful about the ways society conditions us to desire placing our lives into nice neat little pre-made boxes that look like everyone else’s. This expectation is more in-your-face during the holidays. Christmas is the best time of the year to remind you just how alone you are in the world. I feel like the Little Match Girl, shivering outside in the cold trying to light a match while everyone else is inside of their warm cozy homes and gathered around a Christmas tree, sipping eggnog and singing songs of Christmas cheer.
Okay, maybe not that dramatic. But you get the point. It’s painful.
The grog came in late October this year, right after my dead husband’s birthday. His birthday marks another year he will not experience. Another year he will not age. Another reminder that his existence is forever frozen in the year 2016. After his birthday, we have Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. New Year’s. Our first child’s birthday. My birthday. The youngest’s birthday. The middle child’s birthday. Kenneth’s deathaversery. Boom, boom, boom. One after the other. It’s all super triggering.
When I was younger and single, I hated having to watch everyone else get proposals and engagement rings on Christmas while I was still relegated to eating at the kid’s table as a single woman not in a relationship. I loathed all of it. Why them, and not me? Why did I have to watch it? I wanted my own happily-ever-after with a cute holiday sweater and a surprise diamond, but all I ever got was another pair of pajamas from my grandma.
Now I do not want the diamond or the man on his knee, but seeing other people celebrate the holidays with their intact families reminds me of the Christmas mornings Kenneth and I watched our children tear through their Santa presents. It reminds me of the year in our first house when we invited everyone on both sides of our families to celebrate. We were proud to finally be the adults hosting a holiday gathering. It was tiring, but so fun. All of us in that tiny house, everyone oblivious to the fact that seven Christmases later, Kenneth would be gone. Christmas reminds me of the year I bought all of the boys (including Kenneth) remote control tanks that shot tiny pellets and could turn into boats. We took them to the lagoon and the guys played for hours.
Christmas reminds me that all of that is now gone.
I’ve gotten good at accepting my reality and avoiding triggers. I am becoming an expert at owning my circumstances, reinventing my life, blah blah blah. But when the grog comes in, the depression makes me lose control over my headspace. Everything I know and understand about staying positive and not giving in to comparison, jealousy, self-pity, anger, and all of the other negative emotions just doesn’t work.
But why? It is supposed to get better over time. I should be used to it by now. It felt stupid to become immobilized by grog when I knew what it was. I expected it to come. I already survived it several times before. Once you know to expect something, how can you be surprised by it? It’s like a movie you’ve seen a zillion times. You have the lines memorized. You know how it will end. The jig is up.
I don’t have a good answer for that, other than I don’t think you ever fully get used to your life not going as planned. It will never feel normal to lose a person close to you. There is an eternal surrealness about it that leaves you grappling with existential thoughts. Was that person real? It feels like an impossibility. Maybe it was a bad dream that you can’t get out of your head. But that never feels right either.
Just when we think we have our acts together, the holidays come and lure us into a trap, promising wonderful times of togetherness, sparkle, gifts, love, and jovial meals at the dinner table. But instead of getting that Hallmark movie happy ending, some of us will go to bed empty-handed, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past.
There are many reasons why you may go into a holiday season feeling down. It could be the loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s lack of money. A health problem. Memories of a terrible childhood. A broken marriage or relationship. We all have our reasons.
The problem is when we sit around waiting for someone else to fix our feelings. We cling to the fantasy of a savior riding in on a white horse. Fairy godmothers. Magic. Anyone else willing to save the day for us, as long as we don’t have to deal with it.
But life doesn’t work that way.
I’m a big believer in feeling everything. Acknowledging emotions. Being present with the intensity of our pain. I am a hyper-feely person. I try to sit with the pain, but I work very hard not to get stuck in it. I strive to be proactive. Learn from it and move on.
My biggest trick to dealing with grog, and particularly getting through the holidays, is to find things to look forward to in the comings days and months and years. We all need reasons to feel excited and hopeful. It’s the reason Christmas is in December. Historical Jesus was not born in December, but winters are cold and depressing (except in the Southern Hemisphere, lucky bastards). People need something to look forward to. So we get Christmas. Trees. Lights. Food. Presents. Social gatherings. Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s fun. It helps us get through the lack of sunshine and dreariness of the winter season. It breaks up the monotony of the tediousness of living.
I like to do things. This is how I keep my mind occupied and avoid personal pity parties. I create a winter bucket list to do with my kids. We have items on the list such as bake gingerbread men, visit the snow, and read by the fireplace.
I also make a list of intentions for the new year. I write out my goals and list what I want to do, which includes things like taking a meditation class, going to a musical, reading a certain number of books, and even personal goals like “yell less” and “get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.” It’s a great reason to sit down, think about what I enjoy, and then get my calendar out and start planning dates so these intentions don’t just stay on paper, but get scheduled and put into action. By doing this, I am intentionally making time for opportunities to be happy, have fun, and have stimulating experiences that will keep my mind engaged and healthy. It requires me to be self-reflective and hone in on what is important to me. I consciously make decisions about my priorities and how I want to spend my time. All of this has the effect of reminding me that I have so much going on. I have purpose. I have many reasons to wake up in the morning and still be curious about life. Sometimes I need those reminders.
I highly recommend going into the holiday season with a plan. Keep an open mind and have flexible expectations, but don’t leave everything to the wind. Planning and foresight go a long way. You can save yourself a lot of disappointment that you don’t need by being strategic and figuring out your preferences ahead of time, before the grog has you on the bathroom floor crying your eyes out.
Sometimes you have to push yourself. It’s easy to stay home and withdraw into your safe space. I know that socializing always makes me feel better once I am around other people. But when grog is looming over my head, I don’t feel like dealing with anyone. I don’t want to see people, I just want to wallow in my own misery. Sometimes I have to force myself to get out and do it anyway, and when I do, I usually appreciate how my mood improves when I surround myself around cool people.
Changing my scenery is quite effective too. It can be as simple as going for a run or a hike, or even getting out of the house to run an errand. Breaking up the pity party with a change of location. This can help disrupt the negative self-talk looping in your head and gives you a way to re-focus.
Another important strategy I use is to continue creating new traditions. I find that a lot of times we have a propensity to get stuck in the past. We cling to tradition out of familiarity. We start to idolize the past as being the “better times” in our life. The good old days. Creating new traditions, recycling some of the past and incorporating those parts with the present and future, is a great way to reclaim your holidays. They do not belong to the past. There are still good days to come. The holidays are yours to enjoy right now, not a mausoleum to collect the bittersweet memories of yesteryear. There are still so many memories that have yet to be made.
We are now in the thick of the holiday season, and the grog has passed for me. I’ve gotten efficient at processing my feelings before Thanksgiving. I treat my grief like the flu–let it pass through my body and get out of my system. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about sad thoughts from time to time. It’s just that I don’t give them a priority in my life. I don’t let those feeling live rent-free in my head. I would rather focus on the things I look forward to. Things like:
- Traveling. Dreaming of my next destination. Planning. Scheming.
- Drinking coffee on my patio.
- Reading a book that teaches me something new and/or changes my perspective
- Playing tennis.
- Binge watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fuller House (embarrassing, I know).
- Daydreaming. I am always daydreaming. Always.
- The promise of a new journal to write in
- Listening to jazz music and bossa nova.
- Discovering a new podcast.
- Meeting someone whose soul connects to mine (can be platonic).
- Hiking with my children.
- Going to a retreat.
- Taking a road trip.
- A conversation with a good friend (even better when it is in-person).
- Finding a song I want to play over and over again.
- Planting seedlings in my garden.
- Finding a favorite place to eat udon.
- Swimming in the Mediterranean.
- Watching my children perform in their holiday shows.
…and so much more!
Every day that you wake up is a precious gift of time. It is foolish to waste your finite days on what could have, should have, or would have happened.
I am compelled to spend the rest of my time in life doing the things that matter to me. I want to squeeze every bit of opportunity and promise out of each day, savoring them as if they were the last piece of chocolate.
What are you looking forward to? What do you want to do?
That is how I think you attack the holiday blues. You do things. You pursue your passions. You live the life you want to live, not one you get stuck in. You take control. Create. Start new traditions. Be creative. Paint. Go to a concert. Have coffee with a friend. Invite someone over for dinner. Make time to work in your garden. Finish that project you always wanted to do.
Do do do do do do do do do.
You will bust the holiday blues if you go out and do. Be your own personal Santa Claus this year.
The magic is in you.
And know that if this holiday season feels difficult and overwhelming, you are not alone. So many of us carry the invisible scars of our pain and loss. It is a good time to show tenderness toward your fellow human beings, because we all carry burdens that not everyone can see.
Our 2018 holiday photo:
Photo by Jessica Boltman Photography
And if you haven’t checked it out already, the most recent essay I wrote that was published on Tiny Buddha: Your Story Shapes Your Life–and You Can Change it at Any Time.