17 Dec Holidays: You Want to be Happy but You’re Not
You’ve made it through Thanksgiving. Now Christmas and Hanukkah which has an intense focus on merriment, joy, and family togetherness. If you’re celebrating and you’re grieving, it’s really hard.
You want to be happy, but you aren’t feeling it. At least not the majority of the time. If your goal is simply to make it to December 26th, grief may be an unwanted guest for you this season. Unfortunately, grieving can’t be scheduled like a family Christmas photo.
If someone in your close circle has just died, the sadness probably makes sense to you. However, if the loss happened years ago you may be questioning or judging the sadness. You think you should be over it. Frustratingly, the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) aren’t linear.
The stages of grief are like a big ball of ugly yarn says my colleague and fellow adoptee, Janet Nordine. This is such a great description. One day you may pull out a thread of anger, months later here comes denial followed by depression. Then, years later, when you think that you’ve arrived at acceptance, here comes anger again. Damn.
You can’t outrun grief. It’ll find you and it’s normal. Below are signs of grief that you may not have attributed to your experience of loss.
Signs of Grief & Loss
- Trouble concentrating & decision-making
- Increased or decreased dreams
- Sleeping too little or too much; fatigued
- Headaches and stomach aches
- Increased number of colds and infections
- Crying more easily
- Feeling lost and empty
- Feeling abandoned or punished by God
- More clumsy than normal
- Quick to anger
- Wanting to spend more time alone
- Wanting more attention and affection
Perhaps, some of the signs of grief describe what you’re feeling, but you aren’t able to pinpoint your loss. No one has died. Why then, are you so sad? It’s likely that you are suffering from something called an ambiguous loss.
Pauline Boss, the pioneer of the term, says that when human relationships are ruptured by ambiguous loss trauma is experienced. For example, a family member with dementia is lost to you emotionally, but still physically present. Another painful example that I observe frequently is the loss of a fantasy relationship. Such as, longing for the idea of a loving mother, but living with an actual mother who isn’t capable of a warm relationship.
Ambiguous loss is essentially frozen grief because normal markers of loss are missing. No funeral or gathering of family and friends to support you or memorialize the loss. The grieving is often unacknowledged or unrecognized. You feel off or sad without knowing why. Boss believes this is the most stressful kind of loss. I agree.
Examples of Ambiguous Loss
- Loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia
- Sexual orientation or gender presentation isn’t accepted by family
- Unsupportive or narcissistic parent(s)
- Adopted – loss of original family or fantasy of that family
- Loved one with debilitating mental illness
- Divorced – children away on holiday, loss of traditions
- Workaholic spouse
- Layoff or other job loss
If you are dealing with grief and loss this holiday season, you aren’t alone. This is a busy time for me as a therapist, loss is a big reason why. Keep in mind, an inescapable part of connection (family, marriage, friendship) is that at some point you will experience loss. We are social beings and connection is at the core of a meaningful life. During this time, self-care is even more important.
How to Cope
- When you feel sad, get curious, try not to avoid the feeling
- Cry when the feeling arises, don’t push it away
- Connect with a trusted friend, spouse, parent and ask for a listening ear, maybe a good hug too
- Say “no”, limit engagements to events and people you really enjoy
- Sleep and decent nutrition help refuel your brain and energy levels
- Carve out space to be alone, 20-15 minutes in your car or walking the dog can do wonders
- Take a deep, belly breath and exhale a few times before speaking if you feel undue anger or irritation at loved ones
- Talk about the person who has died (if applicable) with family allowing their memory to be present at gatherings
- Schedule time with a therapist to process your loss with an objective person who you don’t have to buy a present for or see at Christmas dinner
Kate Murphy, LMSW
Kate Murphy, a therapist in Chamblee, GA, specializes in helping you decrease stress and anxiety. You can live a more balanced, connected, and meaningful life. Kate works with individuals and couples over the age of 18 to support healing, communicating, and experiencing joy more often.