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Surviving the Holidays


Every year most of us have a tendency to fantasize about the delights of the holidays, wanting this year to top all previous years. We spend more, decorate more, bake more, and eat and drink more. 

What a set up for disappointment.

Divorce makes the holidays even more difficult: other families are having so much fun and you are not. There’s no money, the kids are at the other parent’s house, and the sweetest holiday memories can bring the deepest sorrow and grief. These top ten tips for “Surviving the Holidays” can help you unload the dread, anxiety, or loneliness for a time of inner peace and hope.

( 1 ) Have realistic expectations.

Is this the first year you will not have your children around your table? Are you missing the family parties to which you are no longer invited,or which you just can't force yourself to attend? Let the grief come. This year will be different; don’t try to make it the same as other years. Consider the medical analogy of divorce being like a heart attack; this visual can help you go through the season with much more peace. After a ‘heart attack’, one generally needs more rest, has to drop some former activities, and carefully listens to the body for clues of how far you can push yourself. And as most patients will finally recover, you will, too. The holidays will come again every year. There will be new good times . . . count on it.

( 2 ) Know you may stay home this year.

Celebrations can be exhausting even when you’re happily married. This year you may feel like isolating and staying at home which is a normal part of grief and healing. But most people will feel uncomfortable if you choose not to join in holidays parties. They’ll insist—maybe even push—to get you out. Stop feeling sad! Come be happy with us! They mean well, but they are also like the friend who wants you to unplug the heart monitor, get up out of your hospital bed, and come to the office party when you need to stay put. Be honest with yourself: if you are wallowing in self-pity, you may need to wash your face, spritz on some cologne, and force yourself go. You may be glad you did. But if you are genuinely overwhelmed and need the security of solace, give yourself permission to stay in. If you go to the party and are ambushed by extreme emotions, you also have the freedom to thank the host and leave early. YOU can take care of you. Spend some time in quiet prayer and pour your heart out to God.

( 3 ) Do something special for yourself.

Did you know this is one of St. Thomas Aquinas' remedies for sadness? Plan a time close to Thanksgiving or Christmas day where you go to a good movie, do a little window shopping, drop into Church for short adoration, or enjoy a special treat. It doesn’t have to be lavish. It can be an old favorite activity you love or something new. If you have children you’ll likely be out with them but also do something special for just for yourself. Don’t worry if you’re disappointed afterward that maybe it wasn’t worth it. You took a small step and that’s what counts. If you’d rather stay home, then watch a good movie, cook a favorite meal, and cozy up in a way that comforts you. There’s no sin in that; it can actually be a small foretaste of heaven. Something one needs after the hell of divorce.

( 4 ) Try to do something for someone else.

One of the best ways to come out of our misery is to help someone else. For some, volunteering at a kitchen for Thanksgiving or homeless shelter at Christmas is just the thing they need to bring them back to the reality that God is good, this year will be okay, and that there are many things for which to be thankful. But for others—and perhaps many more—simply remembering to get your kid’s Christmas presents before Christmas Eve will literally be all that you can manage. That’s okay.

( 5 ) Keep it simple.

It’s common to eat, drink, sleep, party, shop, or spend too much to numb painful emotions—any time of the year. The holidays are an annual invitation to overindulge but that often only brings headache, hangovers, hefty bills, and more heartbreak. Having a Christmas tree may cheer you up, but for others it will be too depressing. Sending Christmas cards can be very therapeutic, but for some it is yet another time-consuming and unnecessary expense. Re-examine everything you used to do during the holidays and keep what works and consider getting rid of the rest. Divorce can actually result in you reordering your life in better ways you never realized.

( 6 ) Keep in touch with the kids.

Children crave routine and rituals which give them a sense of security—especially holiday customs. Divorce has already ripped away at the fabric of the family security blanket so try to keep as many of the holiday routines that they best love. Invite them to sit with you and talk about what will stay the same and what will change this year (dealing with change is a life-skill you want your children to have). Ask what their favorites are and help them focus on the fun. Instead of the expensive annual ski trip, popcorn and Christmas movies can become a new family tradition. Ignore it if they roll their eyes, whine, or make demands. When you’re rested and at peace, chances are they will be too.

( 7 ) Don’t think you must celebrate with your ex.

Yes, it would be very good if you all got along at the holidays—but for many it’s usually a myth, or only happens years after a divorce with hard work on both parent’s parts. If tensions are high and the divorce is new, trying to force a family Christmas can often confuse everyone, especially the kids. After divorce many children secretly (if not openly) hope Mom and Dad will get back together, a natural desire that God put into their hearts. When they see forced or tense cooperation and family connections it can delay their acceptance of reality. False hopes are like sugar spikes, they end in worse depression after the holidays and are like salt to the wound of divorce. Some ex-spouses also secretly hope for reconciliation at the holidays as old memories kindle past affections. As much as this could be a good thing, most of the time this isn’t real, either. Try your best to be kind and supportive and get together if you think it’s best, but don’t force it. Christmas can’t cover the real problems.Pray always for reconciliation of the hearts even if living as married again is out of the question.

( 8 ) Help the children buy a present for their other parent.

While divorce changes many things, there are other thing that should never change . . . like your encouraging the kids to freely see, love, honor, and respect their other parent. It can be a cathartic, selfless, and loving act for you to genuinely help your child pick, buy, or make something special for their Mom or Dad. It also shows the child that you don’t hate the other parent when maybe they heard you say you do! But don’t be tempted to take credit for this generosity by adding your name to the gift tag, or in future conversations: “Yes, I helped Zach pick that tie for you because I know how much you like green.” Stay anonymous. The Lord sees what you do in secret.

( 9 ) Draw close to Our Lord.

This shouldn’t be the last of the ten tips because it is the most important, but most people need to know they can manage these holidays before they can settle down emotionally and give thanks to God . . . on Thanksgiving and Christmas. After all, Christmas is about the answer to every man’s prayers for salvation from all that wounds us: God come to us in the flesh. We “divorce” God every day in ways we don’t even realize, and yet he takes us back every moment when we are open and contrite. He is “the good news” who came to us through Mary and greeted the shepherds in the stable. Adore him. Give him your sufferings as the kings gave gold. Let Mary’s kind eyes fall upon you and Joseph’s strong gaze give you hope. Let him love you first! Think of him often during these days that follow the long wait of Advent. The long wait for Love that Never Fails.

( 10 ) Go to Mass and rejoice in your heart.

In the SURVIVING DIVORCE series, the experts all remind us that we are emotional creatures. But after divorce our wounded emotions can be fickle; it’s our thoughts and beliefs that are meant to guide us. As Father Steve says about the wild emotions, “Go higher. Go to what you know to be true.” On Thanksgiving and Christmas days your emotions may be extremely tender; the tears may come and the cries of your heart may be muffled by the strains of “Silent Night”. But come. Come as you are. Let the day come and go and never forget that you are loved. Know that there is hope—even when you can’t sense or fee l it. Believe it!

As the Child was born to embrace the cross, so, too, have you. Know that by remaining open to God through the crosses of your divorce, there will be resurrection and salvation. That is the hope we have in these holidays.

O, come let us adore Him. God bless you.

Rose Sweet