For many people, early November through Jan. 1 is not “the most wonderful time of the year.”
It could be due to a loss, an unexpected life change or the overall stress of trying to fit too much in and buy the latest greatest present. Whatever the cause, professionals have one consistent message: be gentle with yourself.
Kaili van Waveren, a bereavement services coordinator with Hospice of Frederick County, said for those who have lost a loved one, one of the most important steps is acknowledging that the holidays will not look the same this year. Some traditions might bring comfort, but others may not feel right anymore, she said.
She recommended looking for allies who might understand what you’re going through and with whom you feel comfortable opening up. She also advised having “a plan A, a plan B and an escape plan.”
“Sometimes something that feels great in theory ends up feeling really overwhelming when that day comes,” van Waveren said.
For the majority of her clients, she said the anticipation of the holidays ends up being much worse than the actual event.
To get through events, she recommended finding ways to continue traditions but working in ways to honor the person you lost. This could be making his or her favorite dish, putting memories in a stocking or setting an empty place at your table.
“To some people, it’s important to say ‘There was someone who was here last year who isn’t this year,’” she said.
Since everyone has different ways of grieving and using coping mechanisms, van Waveren encouraged candid conversations and compromise.
There is often a tendency to want to escape the season altogether, through going on a vacation or simply pretending it doesn’t exist. This can often backfire, van Waveren said, since holiday decor and music are generally unavoidable. Vacation can initially sound exciting but ultimately feel like running away, she said.
Ellie Bentz, the clinical director of the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, said she encourages comfort without avoidance during any type of tough time. She considers coping to be different than avoiding in that you are coming back to an issue without pretending it doesn’t exist.
“I don’t see re-charging as avoiding. I think it’s giving you the energy to come back to the things that are hard,” Bentz said.
For people who tend to get stressed and overwhelmed during the holidays, Bentz said it usually has to do with a fear of disappointing others. The idea of “FOMO” — fear of missing out — tends to be more about how you want others to see you than what you actually want to do, she said.
Dr. Mimi McLaughlin-Galanis of McLaughlin Family Chiropractic in Walkersville has given presentations on getting though holiday stress. She said women in particular feel pressured to “be everything to everyone” and by a certain deadline. An example she gave was a client who was insistent on making a pumpkin pie out of an actual pumpkin rather than using the canned shortcut.
There’s also the stress of “keeping up with the Joneses,” particularly when it comes to presents for kids.
“They feel their kid has to be the best dressed, even if they can’t afford it,” McLaughlin-Galanis said.
She tells clients to practice mindfulness and to say yes to the things that really matter to them. If you are going to a party, try to have a plan for how long you will stay and how much you will indulge.
“You can say ‘I’m going to only have two drinks and that’s it,’” McLaughlin-Galanis said.
She acknowledged that family gatherings can also cause stress, but attending is usually worth it. Especially when it’s a tradition that is only once a year.
“Our loved ones won’t be around forever,” she said.
McLaughlin-Galanis also encouraged exercise, spending time outside and sticking to a routine when possible. She said it’s also important to prioritize small things like gifts for teachers and school support staff. A lot of times, cooking a meal for someone can be enough.
For people who are grieving during the holidays, van Waveren said they should also consider the post holiday “hangover” once activities and family time are over. She said it’s good to make plans that might involve counseling and support groups.
“We can wind up on Jan. 2 thinking ‘Well now what?’” she said.
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