A Brave New Holiday: How to Let Go

Whether it is caused by a death in the family, divorce, or changing traditions, holidays in transition can be challenging. However, there are clear steps you can take to make things easier and more enjoyable for you and your loved ones.

Coping with a death

People can become saddened during the holidays if a loved one has passed away recently, or if it is the anniversary of a family member’s death. For example, one of my clients became clinically depressed like clockwork every holiday season, even though it had been over a decade since her mother died on Christmas Day.

The strategy we employed was to perform a “letting go” ritual during the next Christmas with her family. Everyone wrote a personal letter to mom saying goodbye. Then the family placed the letters in the fireplace and burned them as a way to let go and start a new beginning.

Overwhelming sadness can come about even if the loved one didn’t pass away near the holidays — some feel sadness because the deceased is not there to take part in holiday traditions. Please know that this is completely normal.

One way to deal with feelings of loss during the holidays is to establish new traditions. New traditions make it less likely that you will dwell on the loss because they give you comfort in the present and hope for the future. We see this in many college students who have to spend holidays at school instead of going home. “Friendsgiving” has become a positive way to continue meaningful holiday traditions with a new sense of gratitude and togetherness. Embrace changes to your holidays, but don’t do it alone.

A new kind of holiday

Many marriage counselors see new partners struggle with combining different holiday traditions. This occurs because we all tend to think that the family traditions we grew up with are the norm. Fighting over when to give gifts, types of religious services to attend and whose family to visit first, are common in new unions.

With the addition of children, struggles over family traditions tend to reemerge. In this instance, counselors recommend that partners take the time to sit down, brainstorm and come up with a compromise. Making a new set of traditions ensures that everyone feels valued. I provided counseling to one family where the mother came from a family that gave only one Christmas gift per child and the father came from a family that gave multiple Christmas gifts. The parents perennially argued and fought over how many holiday gifts to give their children. The answer? A new family tradition where the kids each received two gifts for Christmas. This provided a nice compromise between the upbringings of both parents.

Divorce and holidays

The holidays are particularly challenging for divorced parents, and there are key situations they will want to avoid.

One is the all-too-common “Disneyland Daddy.” Since fathers are more likely to be the non-custodial parent, often they will spoil kids to make up for the guilt of no longer seeing them every day. They compensate by spending lots of money, which can lead to feelings of anger with their former spouse, who may feel as though the non-custodial parent is trying to buy their kids love.

This can also be a negative situation for the non-custodial parent. If you are working to make up for guilt, you are likely running around and taking children places instead of spending quality time with them. Not only will excessive spending set you back financially, it’s a short-term fix that won’t alleviate your guilt. Counselors suggest that non-custodial parents focus on giving their children lots of individual attention rather than spending a ton of money. You can’t buy your child’s love, but you can earn it by getting to know them and demonstrating that you care about their life.

Employ the strategies above to cope with sensitive transitions during the holiday season, and start 2017 on a positive note.

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