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“But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas” – Blue Christmas, Elvis Presley
It’s almost Christmas, the carols are pumping, the presents are piling up, and you are a very rare and lucky person if you aren’t missing someone right now.
Here’s the thing about humans, we all die. (That escalated quickly.) Unless you have been a hermit your entire life, or you are very young and lucky, someone you love has died. Because Christmas is what it is, that loss is usually especially painful this time of year. Someone doesn’t even have to have died for you to be mourning. Maybe your marriage ended; or the one you thought was the one, wasn’t. You might be estranged from a family member or friend right now. Perhaps your faithful dog died after 12 long years together and you’re missing the wet nose in your ear every morning.
Elvis croons it beautifully, for a lot of us, it’s a blue Christmas. It’s a hard place to be in the middle of the “happiest time of the year.” So if you’re feeling blue, you aren’t alone.
I’m giving you permission to feel as rotten as you need to. There’s no shame in mourning, a person, a dream, whatever it is that is missing from your holiday this year it is worth taking some time to miss and honor.
It can be hard to let ourselves feel honestly. Right now you might just feel like curling up at home and crying; while everyone else is having a party. That can feel like you and your feelings are wrong. They aren’t. There’s no need to apologize or pretend. Start by being honest with yourself, if you are depressed, sad, or angry this Christmas allow yourself to feel those things. Then ditch the guilt. You aren’t required to feel a certain way just because there are twinkle lights everywhere.
There are no time limits on mourning either. Nearly 20 years after my grandparents died I still miss them. This Christmas I will miss getting to see my sweet Mother-in-law. And that won’t change 10, 15, or 20 years down the road. Here’s the lie we tell ourselves about grief, you don’t “go back to normal” after a loss. You find a new normal, but that new normal includes an empty place where someone or something important once was.
If you are feeling something other than happy about Christmas this year the solution isn’t to try to force yourself into happiness. First of all because that’s never worked in the history of human beings, and second because it’s a shitty way to treat yourself. That’s not to say you should wallow in grief, but you should be gentle with yourself. What do you need this year? If you are recently divorced maybe you need to skip the party that will be all your married friends kissing under the mistletoe. Perhaps instead you need to invite your other single girlfriends over for an anti-romance Christmas. Everyone’s needs are different and unique, and worthy.
You have permission this year to spend some time figuring out what will help you meet your needs this year. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What situations and activities do I normally do this time of year that feel extra painful and difficult? (You are hereby excused from said events.)
- What situations, activities, or people feel like a healing balm right now? (You are hereby ordered to partake.)
- Who can I reach out to when I’m feeling particularly badly? (You are hereby ordered to text/email/call said person and talk about what’s going on and how you feel.)
- Who should I not trust with my feelings and emotions right now? (You are hereby given permission to deflect all inquiries from said person with “I’m fine, thanks, I’ve got to go.”)
The Joy Miracle
Once we’ve taken care of setting some boundaries around our own emotions (avoiding those people and situations that will be harmful to us, and identifying what we need) it’s a good idea to do something that might seem counter-intuitive. You see I have discovered (and wise folks like the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu will back me up) that to find our own happiness we must concentrate not on ourselves but others. Think about it. How amazing does it feel to make someone else’s eyes light up with joy? How awesome is it when we make someone laugh with happiness, or squeal with delight? Pretty damn awesome, that’s what. (See: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World)
There’s science behind it: bringing joy to other people is the most reliable way to bring happiness to ourselves. Which is good news when you are feeling like crap in the middle of the holidays. While you should be taking care of yourself there is danger in focusing exclusively on ourselves when we are in darkness. We can dig ourselves in deeper and lose sight of the light that is all around us. But trying to make ourselves happy doesn’t work either. So what should we do? Make others happy, give to others the gift we cannot give ourselves and slowly, gently you may find joy creeping quietly back into your own life.
So, how do you bring joy to other people while you are having a blue Christmas? It doesn’t all involve presents. You don’t have to be wealthy to make others happy, so first step away from the credit card. Joy isn’t about stuff, often the best gift you can give someone is your presence. That might seem counter intuitive when you are sad yourself, but it’s true.
Who do you know that’s going through a similar loss to yours? There are other people in your life who are missing someone, who have lost something. Make a point to reach out, even if just to send a Christmas card with a heartfelt note. You’ll make someone feel less alone, which is perhaps the best gift you can give. Maybe no one seems to notice that your husband died this year and you’re alone for the first time on Christmas, so be the person who acknowledges that loss for someone else.
It’s a hard time of year to be one of the forgotten folks in our country. An elder in a nursing home without family nearby, the homeless vet estranged from his family, the runaway teenager. There are lots of people who feel alone and forgotten this time of year, you might be one of them. Be the person who remembers. Get out of your house and join folks caroling at the local nursing home, or go with a local church putting on a Christmas service there. Or call up and find out if there are residents who will have no visitors on Christmas day, show up for people who expect nothing and you’ll give them (and yourself) the world. It isn’t hard and it doesn’t require a lot, if you can bring along some simple gifts: good hand cream, a CD of oldies, Christmas cookies. Mostly, show up, listen to their stories, and tell your own. You might just make a new best friend.
If it’s too hard to be home on Christmas day find a soup kitchen or shelter that’s doing a Christmas meal and spend the day helping out people who are mostly forgotten while everyone is home with their family. Eat dinner with the homeless vet, listen without judgement to the runaway kid, sling some mashed potatoes and turkey around. You’ll feed more than hungry stomachs and you will almost certainly find your own heart and soul lightened as well.
Even if you aren’t normally part of a religious community you might want to look into “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services. Many churches, realizing that this is a difficult time of the year for a lot of people, have begun doing something about it. Usually falling around the solstice (December 21st) these services acknowledge the darkness in our lives. Most of them have times and rituals meant to honor missing loved ones, or other losses that have taken place in our lives. They honestly face sorrow, anger, and struggle in the midst of Christmas cheer. And these sorts of rituals can be deeply healing. If you would like to put together this type of service for yourself or others here some examples that are great places to start.
Break Bread With Loss
One of the most powerful human experiences is the act of eating together. There is very little you can do that is more holy, or healing than gathering a group of people you love and sharing a meal. This might be your family, or it might be the “family you chose.” There is no requirement here that your house be clean (do not invite anyone who would criticize your house cleaning), or that the meal be fancy. Order pizza if you like, it isn’t what you eat that matters. What does matter is sitting down with a group of people who love and care for you and spending time feeding your bodies and your hearts. Eat whatever you like, and tell stories. Stories are the seeds that help joy grow out of loss. Tell the story of how your parents met, your husband proposed, your child was born. Tell the stories that make you laugh, and the ones that make you cry. Pass stories around among you, each offering your own dish of memories until everyone is full.
If you have never been to a rowdy wake, or a true funeral after party you might be surprised how soon the laugher comes, how cathartic it is, and how much better you feel.
Your turn! What has helped you when your Christmas was blue? Share it in the comments to help others.