Tree of written memories

Tree of written memories

The holidays are coming. Supermarkets are stocking up on turkeys and hams. Towers of candy wrapped in silver and gold are springing up in stores. Evergreens will soon scent the air with pine, and bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa Clauses will pierce our ears with reminders to be generous and give to the poor. Sights, sounds and smells can trigger happy memories – along with sadness and anxiety.

I asked friends if they could describe some of these emotions.

A sense of loss was number one – loss of family members, good friends, traditions, and “place” for those who live far from home. Some described certain people who were beacons for celebrating and enjoying a holiday; people who were the life of the party. (I remember my younger brother’s enthusiasm for decorating the house and the Christmas tree – even though we used to argue about it!) One friend described her husband (now deceased) as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. Since he died, it’s been difficult for her to get into the Christmas spirit. A young mother said that, since her husband’s death in the Iraq war, her sadness intensifies at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young when he died to remember him during his favorite holiday.

Some people expressed an overwhelming feeling of expectation, that holidays require being social and happy, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all of this in a short period of time (especially if you haven’t been shopping all year!).

After expectations, a significant source of stress was family conflict at holiday events. Fights and arguments flare up when particular family members get together. Distress is generated when a new family member doesn’t fit in. The election results this year might be a new battleground in some families. The idea of Trump being our next president is an appalling thought for more than half the population of the U.S. based on the results of the popular vote. This may be a contentious subject in many holiday gatherings, perhaps dividing families unlike any event since the Civil War.

There is also the stress of having to take over and be in charge of family holiday traditions. I remember trying to replicate my mother’s twenty-five pound roast turkey with milk cracker stuffing and her multitude of vegetable dishes the first time I took over the Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to make the meal exactly as my mother and grandmother had prepared it for years. I thought I’d won the Olympics when my mother said the mashed potatoes were “not bad.”

A sense of loneliness at holiday time lingers for some people, especially for those with no family to do things for or with. One person who lives alone said that she usually receives an invitation for Thanksgiving, but never for Christmas. Loneliness can also feel more acute during the holidays if there is a long-standing family feud with people refusing to see or speak to other family members.

Can we ward off seasonal stress? Is there a “holiday shot” similar to a flu shot?

Perhaps the first step is to realize that it isn’t just us. We have our triggers, but there is also an atmosphere that pervades the universe as holidays approach. As early as October, the Norman Rockwell depictions of families gathered around a plump golden turkey begin to appear. Then, images of angelic children in pajamas happily hanging ornaments, popcorn strings and tinsel on giant trees pop up in advertisements. The airwaves drone with sentimental music. We are prompted to recall memories and reminded of holidays that might have been. Old movies like A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street take us through the story arc of loss, misunderstanding, revelation and redemption – except that, when someone is living with a recent loss, it’s difficult to get beyond act one. It’s painful to see others continuing on the journey to a happy ending.

For those who have lost a spouse, a sibling, a partner, a parent or a child, even a beloved pet – the media bombardment during holidays reminds us over and over that someone we love is no longer in the picture. Some say it’s hard to see couples holding hands.

I remember shortly after my husband was killed in Vietnam in 1969, well-meaning people asking me what I was going to do for the up-coming holidays. Trying to imagine the future and make plans can be excruciating in the early days of grief. I discovered it was good to be ready with an answer like, “I’ll be with my family,” or “I’m going to spend it with a college friend,” even if it was impossible to imagine tomorrow.

Finally, holidays may exaggerate our tendency to compare our situation with that of others. At Christmas or Hanukah, after the loss of a child, it’s very difficult to watch other parents with children and not feel an agonizing sense of loss – even anger and jealousy. It is perfectly acceptable to avoid those situations until you feel able to handle them.

You can also give yourself permission to re-imagine the holiday. Start with a small, personal ritual. Create an altar of images, poetry and quotations; reminders of things that inspire and give you strength. Make it beautiful and whimsical. Decorate it with beloved objects and light candles. Invite friends and ask them to bring something that inspires them. The goal is to remind yourself of what is precious and nourishing – for you. Celebrate your resilience up to this day. Stay in the present. Remember that the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day.” Make it your own holy day.