When The “Perfect Holiday Season” Goes Wrong

When The “Perfect Holiday Season” Goes Wrong

The holidays are a beautiful, busy time. The radio stations fill with classic songs, Christmas trees are hung with familiar and favorite ornaments, and the shops are full of cheerful shoppers seeking the perfect gift. At holiday meals, the meat is perfectly done, the china is piled high with side dishes, and families gather together and laugh and talk about the year that has almost ended.The scenario I’ve described is one that we all long for: that perfect holiday season. We seem to know that Christmas should be like that, that the holidays somehow ought to be about togetherness and happiness and giving. Movies and songs and magazine articles give us a glossy beautiful holiday season. This is what it should be like.But few of us have ever entered into that magical Christmas world. Instead of togetherness, we feel intensely alone. Instead of happiness, we grieve for what we do not have in our lives and all the things we have lost. Instead of giving, we feel lost and desperate for love. For every holiday meal, there is something left unsaid, or someone whose presence is sorely missed. And for every look back at the year, there is a quiet desperation that one more year has passed without significant change.

The holiday season brings a spike in suicides, drug and alcohol relapses, and a flood of new clients for mental health professionals. It is as though a dream within us breaks every year, and each year it surprises us. As a therapist, I often see how the distance between the world we hope for and the world in which we live can be devastating, but this is never more clear than during the holiday season.The thread that binds the depression, the anger, and the loneliness that I see in clients is grief. As a term, grief should not be reserved for someone who has died; in our lives we see many births and many deaths. We grieve the loss of a friendship. We grieve the loss of the happy child who is now an angry adolescent. We grieve for the way that we ourselves have changed, perhaps growing harder and more cynical over the years. What I see in my clients (and, if I’m honest, in myself) is that the holidays bring more grief than joy.But mourning is just as human as love. In fact, we can grieve only because we love. And so I think the holidays offer a unique opportunity to acknowledge the parts of our lives that are unfulfilled. They provide a space to seek the parts of our souls that have gone unloved and unspoken. The half-done tasks, the projects put aside for other distractions, these are part of who we are, too. We will never be smart enough, or strong enough, or brave enough, for what we expect from ourselves and our lives.Rejecting the glossy holiday image is a challenge; we are sold the story on every street corner and in every image of this season. But as a therapist and as a human being I find that this time of year shows us so distinctively our broken places. It is a gift, a gift because we become stronger in our broken places if we have the courage to face them.So when that family dinner turns into a vicious argument, when that holiday ornament reminds you so strongly of someone who has died that you can barely breathe, and when those holiday tunes seem to make you feel even more alone, remember that the holidays are a kind of myth, a cultural story we tell ourselves. And instead of throwing yourself into the parties, the shopping, the caroling with even more enthusiasm, take a moment to reflect on what is missing in your life. Before you make your New Year’s promise, give yourself time to mourn what you have lost, and what you have never had.

As a society we are not very good at mourning. We are not good on an individual level, either, sitting with the discomfort of knowing that we are missing part of ourselves, or feeling that we are not whole. That “not quite whole” feeling is what drives so many to excesses of various kinds, even addictions. But taking the time to acknowledge loss is the way through a holiday season far too full of perfect images. Take a minute, an hour, or a day, and allow yourself to feel lost.

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