How to Handle the Holidays When Things Are Hard

Arm yourself with these coping strategies if the holiday season brings sadness, stress, or struggles.

The holidays—a time to be joyous as we celebrate the good in life, surrounded by friends and family. At least, that's what it seems like it should be, right? If it were only that easy. In reality, life often gets in the way of a very merry holiday season—loved ones pass away, people get sick, money gets tight, family moves far away, and some people even wholly leave your life. A mix of expectations and disappointments can create a stressful month or two, all of the while you're expected to act like everything's OK.

But what if this year you were to say goodbye to all those expectations and traditions, and instead, let yourself off the hook a little? "If difficulties surrounding the holidays feel insurmountable, remember that you are in charge of what you choose to do," says Nisha Zenoff, PhD, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Unspeakable Loss. Though the idea may seem sacrosanct, it just might be the key to getting through the holidays, no matter the situation you're going through.

If the holidays seem tough this year, read on: here, a few ways to help lessen the pain of the holidays, no matter what stressful or difficult situation you might be in.

01 of 06

If you're grieving...

"Holidays are hard because your loved one is not there and you can never get them back," says Zenoff. "The rituals, sights, and aromas can trigger memories, many of which can be painful." However, one must remember that they are in charge of the holidays—so if you don't feel like celebrating this year, don't force yourself. Instead, Zenoff recommends spending time away from the traditional merry and bright atmosphere. That might mean seeking the solitude of nature, staying alone in your own home, or spending time with others who are going through similar struggles. If you do want to celebrate, spending time with friends and family can be comforting, especially when one acknowledges the holidays will never be the same and honors the memory of a lost loved one. Paul Hokenmeyer, Ph.D, a marriage and family therapist in New York City, suggests making an effort to create new memories that incorporates the deceased. Some examples might be keeping a candle lit, making their favorite food, writing a poem or a letter to them, or volunteering in the community for a cause they supported. However, be compassionate with yourself and know that it might not go as planned. "If you want to cancel invitations at the last minute, give yourself permission," Zenoff says.

02 of 06

If you're estranged from your family...

Estrangement can be particularly painful around the holidays due to the influx of cultural and commercial fantasies of what family looks like, notes Hokemeyer. These images don't reflect back the realities of life for many people, and the distortion instead makes those already vulnerable feel more marginalized and alone. Remember that family values are those that have meaning and resonance to you and you alone. The most helpful thing to do when feeling disappointed and rejected by your own blood kin is to surround yourself with people who mirror your values and value the uniqueness of you, says Hokemeyer.

03 of 06

If you're ill...

"When you are seriously ill, it's OK for the holiday—and every day—to be about you," says Steven Pantilat, MD, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of Life After the Diagnosis. "With serious illness, the goal is to make every day a good day and to have as many good days as possible—think about what will feel best to you, and do that." That can include skipping everything that feels like a chore—think: certain holiday traditions, seeing certain colleagues or distant family members, or even eating or preparing the customary meal—and instead indulging in what will feel meaningful. And if you do decide to partake in the conventional celebrations and come across well-meaning family and friends that seem to add to your stresses? "It's OK to decline to talk about your illness," Pantilat says. "Don't worry about offending people—those who get offended don't matter and those that matter won't be offended."

04 of 06

If a loved one is ill...

Having a friend or a family member who is seriously ill can be distressing, especially as it forces one to confront their own mortality and lack of control in the grander scheme of things. However, a good way to overcome this discomfort is to direct your efforts outward to your loved one. "Know that you don't have to say or do much—your presence says it all," Dr. Pantilat says. If it looks like this year may bring about the "last" holiday together as a family, do all you can to make it meaningful, if your loved one is up to it, of course. "So many people come for a funeral—but how much better to come for Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashana, Diwali, Eid Al Fitr, or Christmas when you can spend time with your loved one?" he says.

05 of 06

If you've lost your job...

While financial insecurity is never easy, it's incredibly difficult at holiday times when commercial interests communicate that money and gifts equal love and value. "The best way to deal with financial insecurity is to get into service," Hokemeyer says. From creating timeless handmade gifts (like a letter to friends and family detailing what you love about them) to volunteering in the community, focusing on what you can give can help you realize how much you have, even if your bank account makes you think otherwise.

06 of 06

If you're getting divorced...

Divorce is traumatic and can cause symptoms associated with grief, and images of couples in love during the holidays can really be triggering for some. The key to getting through the end of the year is to really take care of one's self, says Hokemeyer—especially if you're dealing with the pain and anger created in the wake of infidelity or irreconcilable differences. He suggests creating a self-care routine (like taking a daily walk, getting a weekly facial, or taking a long bath, for example) and sticking to it. Practicing self-love, even in small ways, can really help bring the focus inward and away from what other people might be doing or feeling.

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