Hurting During the Holidays

By Carrie Jones, LCSW

Director of Counseling, Community Center Shanghai

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…it’s the hap-happiest season of all”…right?  Yes, in many ways it really is.  However, paradoxically, for many the holidays also can be among the most painful and challenging times of the year.  This especially can be the case for those who live away from family and friends and who don’t travel home for the holidays.

Based on both my own personal experience (this is now my 10th consecutive Christmas season to spend here in Shanghai, far away from family and friends back at home, Texas) and my professional experience of working with countless clients who also have felt the homesickness, loneliness, and longing that can come with being separated from loved ones during this season, I’d like to share some thoughts on how to cope and find some joy wherever and with whomever you may find yourself spending the holidays.

Establish traditions, a mix of old and new, wherever you are.

For many people, holidays are full of special traditions.  When possible, try to continue some of these customs.  It can also be very meaningful and significant to create new traditions.  For my family, we’ve found that sharing some of our holiday traditions (decorating sugar cookies, singing Christmas carols by candlelight, having a white elephant gift exchange party) with local friends is a source of great joy, fun, and meaningful connection.

Manage expectations. 

We often have the tendency to romanticize and sentimentalize holidays and hold certain expectations about what holidays “should” look like based on these views.  However, reality is that holidays also often are full of stress.  Who hasn’t experienced holiday stress from busyness, family conflict, financial concerns, or whatever the source may be?  When you are away from loved ones, it can be particularly easy to have gilded memories of past holidays back home or gilded imaginings of the perfect holiday everyone, and all the magical moments everyone back home, is experiencing without you.  Yes, it is important both to remember the good times and to think of loved ones back home as they celebrate the present holiday, but the problem with overly idealized memories and imaginings is that your current reality can never live up to these and you will always be left feeling disappointed.

Do what works for you.

It may sound silly or trivial, but there have been years when I have been very intentional about not allowing myself to look at Facebook or other social media the day after a holiday here (the day of the holiday back home) because I found that seeing pictures of all the holiday gatherings I was missing evoked more sadness or homesickness than I was ready to deal with at the time.  Other years though, I’ve found it comforting and a way of feeling connected to look at these pictures.  For you it may be not be looking at pictures, but something else that is especially triggering.  Regardless, figure out what feels best for you and know that it may be different from year to year.

Make healthy choices.

When you feel lonely and isolated, miles away from home and with many of the people you know here away for holiday travels, it can be tempting to adopt a Scrooge-like attitude and kind of wallow in your misery.  Try to be proactive though and find positive things to help you experience some of the holiday spirit here.  Shanghai has an increasing number of holiday options, whether you are looking for a religious service, Christmas market or bazaar, performance, or special meal.  It also can be tempting for some to escape or numb difficult feelings by over-indulging in drink or other things, so do use moderation and make healthy choices to avoid a downward spiral.

Celebrate whenever you are home or together with loved ones.

I’ve had clients tell me they celebrate holidays they were away for whenever they do go back home for visits and I think this is a delightful idea…who doesn’t need a good reason to indulge in your favorite holiday meal or treats months after the actual holiday?!  Really though, holidays are much more than just a certain date on the calendar and the spirit of them can be celebrated any time of year. 

Grief and loss during the holidays

Expats and those away from home and family and friends aren’t the only ones who find holidays painful.  Those who are grieving the death of a loved one also frequently find holidays to be the most difficult time of the year.  Emotions are high, memories abound, and traditions and rituals don’t feel the same without the presence of a loved one who has died.  It is important to give yourself permission to really grieve, even if this means not being as cheerful, joyful, active, or involved as others expect or hope you to be during the holidays.  Be sure to take some time to remember your loved one, the times you shared together, and the role he/she played in your life.  Some people find it helpful to find something meaningful to do to honor the memory or celebrate the life of their deceased loved one – perhaps lighting a candle, hanging a special ornament, or making a donation to a worthy cause in his/her name. 

Whatever your circumstances and situation may be, I hope you experience peace, comfort, and joy this holiday season and have a happy new year.

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