Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

This is what to do when the holidays are painful

It’s okay if you hate the holidays. I won’t tell you otherwise.

It’s okay if you’re dreading time with family because of deep wounds or toxic relationships.

It’s okay if you can’t bear the thought of not seeing the loved one you lost so recently.

Or if your heart breaks as you realize another year has gone by and you’re still single.

Or still childless.

Or still sick.

My dear friend, I’m so sorry this year is hard. I hate the way your chest threatens to crack open with the bursting pain. I would change it if I could soothe the ache of unfulfilled dreams, deep loss, or dashed hopes.

I’ve walked the cold road from November to January, wishing the season was over. I’ve struggled under depression and financial strain and crushing sorrow. Over the years, I’ve discovered a few ways to lighten the load, so I wanted to share them with you.

Borrow somebody’s kid

One dark year, I was dreading the holidays and everything that came with them: the expectations, the images of family togetherness, the stereotypical “most wonderful time of the year.” I really wanted to enjoy the season, but I didn’t think I could.

So I borrowed my friend’s 4-year-old daughter, bought a tiny Christmas tree for my tiny apartment, and put on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We drank hot chocolate, decorated the tree, and ate candy canes. (Then I sent the sugared-up little girl home to her mama. You’re welcome).

I didn’t realize how much joy it would bring to see the holidays from a child’s perspective. Even as I struggled, laughing with a kid made it possible to enjoy the season in a new way.

Create new traditions

After that first year that I had my friend’s daughter come over to help me decorate, it became a tradition. I would have my friend’s kids over to decorate Easter eggs or bake cookies or whatever.

Eventually, it was replaced with other new traditions. My roommate and I would have parties at our house around the holidays. There was our annual Fall Feast (basically Friendsgiving) and Winter Wonder Day, when we would go get our Christmas trees, watch cheesy Hallmark movies, and decorate together.

It sounds simple and fun, without any deeper motive. But, in our group of friends, we each lived with different aches, unfulfilled hopes, and loneliness. Our fun little traditions made each of us feel more connected, seen, and known in a season that can easily highlight what we didn’t have.

Honor those you’ve lost

Grief has a funny way of crashing over us and turning sweetness into sorrow. If you’re experiencing the year of painful “firsts” without your loved one, don’t try to carry on like nothing has changed. The reality is that everything will seem different. That’s okay.

Instead, bring your loved one into the celebration, perhaps in a way that would have been meaningful to them. If they loved family dinner more than anything, maybe have a photo of them on the table and share stories. If volunteering was important, make some time or set aside some funds for their favorite charity. Hang a special ornament on the Christmas tree, play their favorite song, or light a candle in their honor.

Have an escape route (or know where your “afterparty” is)

When I worked with young women who had experienced severe trauma, they often went home to toxic situations during the holidays. As they fought to find healing, they worried going home would derail their hard work.

My best piece of advice was to always have an “afterparty:” somewhere to go when things got too hard with family or they needed a break. If things tended to get difficult in the evening, plan on leaving before then to hang out with an old friend, catch a movie, or join another holiday dinner.

Even if your family is healthy and amazing, we sometimes need an escape route when holidays are hard. Plan an evening walk, an early bedtime for the kids, or a quiet drive to look at lights in the city.

You might need a mid-day break, so volunteer to run to the store or do a solo project. Whether you need a quiet moment to remember someone you lost this year, or a nap because you’re struggling with serious illness, take the breaks you need.

Schedule what you need

Build time in your schedule to breathe or grieve. Schedule a low-key day, put naps on the calendar, or plan to have someone watch the kids so you can relax.

Block out times on the calendar to be home, to cook for yourself, or to work out. Sometimes self-care means bubble baths, but sometimes it means caring for your body like you would for a child: healthy food, good sleep, and time to play/exercise. Whatever you need, make sure to schedule and prioritize it so it doesn’t get lost in the busyness of the holidays.

Say no

This is SO important. You probably don’t have to cook everything. You also don’t have to bake 43 dozen cookies for church. Or show up to fourteen parties between now and January.

There are so many expectations around the holidays, but I’ve learned I get to decide what feels right to me. For example, I like to make gifts for people, but I can’t manage it for everyone I’d like to. So sometimes I buy something instead. Sometimes, if money is tight, there may not be gifts.

There have been years I haven’t traveled, haven’t decorated, or haven’t made a thing.

When the holidays are especially tough, it’s important to say no to what is too difficult or too triggering. While others may expect something, if the stress is going to give you a panic attack or if you’re going to be crushed under the weight of grief, it’s okay to say no.

Savor what you can

Find what gives you joy, is refreshing, or brings good memories. If something is enjoyable in the moment, just enjoy it. Try to pay attention to how you feel, the same way you savor a favorite food.

This isn’t about denying the ache or pretending to feel better than you really do. This is about taking it moment-by-moment and, when your heart feels happy or full, allowing yourself to feel it.

Don’t “choose joy” – cultivate it

It’s common in Christian circles to hear we just need to “choose joy” when we’re struggling. This can be compounded around the holidays when we’re supposed to celebrate gratitude and the coming of Christ.

But for many of us, it’s not possible to simply decide how we’re going to feel. And it’s not healthy to deny the very pain and humanity that Jesus came to join us in.

Although we can’t “choose joy,” we can cultivate joy. We can learn to find it hidden in the messy and the mundane, in the quiet moments with loved ones and even on our darkest days.

If the holiday season is tough and you’re looking for more joy, check out Joy-Full, my 5-day online course. These short, simple lessons will open your eyes to the beauty surrounding you and fill your heart with true, unshakeable joy. Click here to find out more.


7 Replies

  1. Not gonna lie, I’ve totally been dreading the “single again this year” feeling at my otherwise harmonious family gatherings. (And this year it’s compounded by the “I’m now 30 and still single, and my younger brother is married with a child, am I Bridget Jones?” feeling.) But the “borrow someone’s kid” thing usually works for that. 🙂 I borrow my cousin’s kids and have fun with them instead of moping, and this year, I also have a nephew/godson!

    1. Oh Randi, I totally get it! I felt that way so many years. It’s hard to feel like the odd one out at family gatherings. I’m glad you’ve got some kids to borrow 🙂 It makes a big difference!

  2. This was very timely for me. No kids of my own, no grandkids, struggling health and marriage. So many losses in the past 5 years, (brother, mother, 6 friends and my dearest dog) This year family left will be together but we were not included. So I have felt deeply depressed. You had some wonderful insight and suggestions.
    Thanks for sharing them

    1. Lynn, thanks so much for sharing this. I hate that you’ve experienced such loss and heartache recently. I’m praying today has been full of peace and comfort. I’m grateful this has been encouraging to you!

  3. Thanks for the advice! This is my first Thanksgiving since my brother passed away, I’m divorced and still single, my kids barely speak to each other. As a Christian I am thankful but often feel the pressure to always be thankful and smiling no matter what! This year I am focusing on what I’m thankful for but still allowing the pain of loss and disappointment to come through. It’s there and I won’t lie about it anymore.

    1. Hi Joannie,
      It sounds like you’ve had a really rough year. This must be a tough holiday without your brother for the first time. I’m so glad you’re finding permission to be real in your pain. I think the ability to be honest about the heartache makes the things we’re grateful for that much sweeter. Take good care of yourself this holiday season!

  4. Janet Robinson

    I found your advice to cultivate joy very profound. For years I have heard “choose joy”, but it never felt quite right. Now I understand. Thank you!

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