Ahh, December. Is it truly a time of joy and singing and festive merriment? Or, for so many, is it a time of remembrances of departed loved ones, dreams lost, and the ideal of the Hallmark movies never attained? The reality of the December season can be a complex one: emotionally, financially, interpersonally, spiritually, and historically. The season can affect so many of us, in ways unexpected.
December can be a time fraught with complexities and stress over how to handle the barrage of familial expectations. Whose family to go to? Which family member offers the most guilt if you can’t get there? Did you purchase the “right” presents? Is all the food prepared especially for the wide range of dietary requirements? Familial dynamics can bring current hurts - and those perhaps from years past that still linger.
If you have had a recent death of a loved one and this season is a “first” of not having that person with you, the pain can be acute. The second annual event can also be heartbreaking. And if you had a complicated relationship with one who has died, complicated grief can be that much more painful. Be aware and be gentle with yourself and those around you.
Consider all the ads on television and radio proclaiming that celebrations are only defined by alcoholic beverages. What message does that send our children, our teens, pregnant folks, and those in recovery? Alcohol and other substances do not define celebrations nor are they a requirement.
Just writing this is causing my stress level to increase: how are you dealing with yours?
For those feeling extra stress this season:
Take each challenge one at a time.
Remember that you are human and we are all imperfect and sometimes get overwhelmed.
Breathe. Truly. Take a deep breath (so you can feel your stomach rise) in through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7 and exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Do this several times. Will it fix everything? No. But, this practice will help center you to more effectively tackle the situations with which you are struggling.
When thinking about your family (whether your family members, your extended family, in laws, blended, significant others), what is it that you are hoping for? Is it time with specific people? Is there a way to navigate your time so that can be a reality? If staying with family makes it increasingly difficult, is there somewhere else to stay or could you go just for the day?
I am a big fan of small and personal gifts. Some of my memorable ones over the years include handwritten letters, a favorite dessert, a planned picnic and hike, a photobook. The common denominator is the gift of time that each person provided. Our days are so very full - the gift of time is a treasure. This of course is contrary to the ads extolling the virtues of buy, buy, buy.
Talking ahead with family members about expectations for presents and what family time together will look like can make the time together less frenetic. Planning ahead for who will cook/clean/and making sure it is not all on one person will make a positive impact. Be explicit!
Cuddle with your pets, take them for a walk, take a little more time with grooming. Caring for a furry friend can reduce your stress levels
Talk with a friend.
Enjoy a cup of tea, coffee, hot water with lemon. There is something soothing about a hot beverage.
Savor a favored food (not in front of the tv but rather mindfully eat it and enjoying the tastes, the aroma, the textures).
Use your resources. If you are in need of support, use emotional and behavioral health helplines, hotlines, AA, NA, or Alanon.
As a parent or guardian, you can model so many healthy ways of responding to problematic situations. Even as your teens may seem to ignore you, they are watching, learning, and absorbing what you do and how you react and respond.
For parents & guardians:
Plan ahead for challenging family dynamics.
Show how you can have a great time without alcohol and other substances - make some non-alcoholic mocktails or enjoy hot chocolate or a hot cider.
Appreciate the positives and actively comment on them.
Take some time together, laugh, and be present together. Whether it's watching a movie, cooking together, taking a walk, drawing together, playing cards - whatever helps you and your loved ones connect.
If you're lucky enough to see snow, enjoy the cold magic of it falling and spend some time outside.
And for those mourning:
Remember that grief hits us at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
Think about what you may need to feel connected. Writing a note to your loved one, doing an activity that you enjoyed together, talking about them with others who cared too.
Acknowledge your feelings. They are valid.
Find ways to include your loved one’s memory.
Think of new traditions that could ease some of the sorrow.
Consider lighting a candle in your loved one’s memory. Yahrzeit candles are usually used for the anniversary of a Jewish person’s death. However, I know many people who are not Jewish who have found solace in using them. They stay lit for 24 hours, although there are now some for 48 hours or longer. They can be purchased in many grocery stores as well as online. Having a lit candle can bring that loved one into the room with you. As you light it, perhaps say something about that person. [Please, put it into the sink safely away from anything that could catch on fire before you head to sleep.]
It can be helpful to remember that many religions and cultures have observances in December: Christian, Judaism, Kwanzaa, Wicca/Pagan, Zororastrian, and Buddhism. And many of us are facing the same challenges. You are not struggling in isolation. So breathe, make time for yourself, and plan for how to manage the stresses the month offers.