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Good Grief: An Expert’s Advice for a Happier Holiday

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Myra McNair

Last weekend, my sister said to me, “I just wish we didn’t have the whole week until Christmas.” She was referring to the fact that this Christmas falls on a Sunday. We were baking cookies to donate to Goodman Community Center’s “Family Fun Night: Winter is SNOW Much Fun” event this week.

While she was having her scroogy, “Bah, Humbug!” moment, I was feeling the opposite way—singing along to holiday tunes on Spotify and happily pondering my last-minute shopping list. The kitchen smelled so good—warm chocolate chips, ginger and molasses.

What a difference a day makes, as the saying goes. I woke up the next day feeling anxious and full of worry about managing my own stress, as well as supporting my daughter through such a dreadfully long holiday week. My sister was right!

This year marks the fourth Christmas without my daughter’s dad, and the third without one of her grandmas. It doesn’t seem to get easier; it just gets different. If you’ve experienced the loss of a dear one, which most of us have, holidays are bittersweet.

For me, the holidays are also a time when my eating disorder kicks into overdrive—comfort foods both savory and sweet are suddenly everywhere. The cycle of enjoying the indulgences followed by the guilt and shame of indulging, or not indulging at all for fear of over-indulging, is a head game that wears me out. I’m better at it now that I’m older, but it always creeps up on me.

Some days living in the winter wonderland of Wisconsin helps at this time of year; other days it’s just plain dreary, depressing, and cold as hell. The mood swings can be vicious. Joy to the world, one minute. Blue Christmas, the next.

As a kid, Christmas was magical, and I have my parents to thank for that. They always made sure Santa brought something special for all of us, and socializing with family and friends was so much fun. Once I had a family of my own, getting to play Santa became the absolute best part of Christmas. My daughter is a grown-up now, but I still love stuffing her stocking and watching her eyes light up opening gifts. I still love spending time with family and friends, too. It’s just different now. The losses feel heavier; some memories stir up heartache.

Why do we put such unrealistic expectations on ourselves when it comes to enjoying the holidays? I decided to ask an expert, Myra McNair, founder of Anesis Family Therapy.

“We glorify certain things too much, that everything has to be perfect,” says McNair. “That’s just not realistic.”

The holidays, she adds, are a natural trigger for certain memories. And, if you’ve experienced any kind of grief, you know that it comes in waves. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean “regular” feelings of grief won’t come up during this time.

“It’s hard to give yourself that permission to celebrate when you are grieving,” says McNair. “It’s a lot to hold all those different feelings but it’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to celebrate. It’s ok to do both.”

Sometimes, I’m afraid of creating new traditions because I don’t want my daughter to feel as if I’m abandoning old ones. It’s so hard to find that balance—for her and for me. McNair has heard that before as well.

“Rituals and traditions are really important around grief work, especially with children when they lose a parent,” she says. “It’s a way to honor but it’s also a part of healing.”

As important as it is, McNair admits,“It’s just really hard for people to figure out new family traditions when you’ve lost someone. It’s important to give yourself time to figure out how you want to move forward.”

While McNair says many of her clients have expressed relief from the pressure of the holidays during the Covid era of restricted everything, I was really hoping this year would be more normal. Nope. Enter year three of a pandemic-infused holiday, where so many of us are grappling with whether or not to visit the grandparents, or even pop into Target for that last-minute stocking stuffer. Perhaps the winter storm that’s making its way to Wisconsin will make our decisions for us!

Either way, I’m going to try to take McNair’s sage advice: “The holiday doesn’t have to look like Hallmark. Doing things different is ok.”