Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

How to survive painful holidays (when you just want to hide)

The fact that it’s November means everyone is talking about gratitude. 

At least, it seems that way here in the U.S. 

Thanksgiving is almost here and the holiday season is upon us. Christmas lights and tree vendors are popping up around town. This week, many of us will be gathering with family to talk about what we’re thankful for this year. 

But you might not feel very grateful right now. You might be struggling with some harsh circumstances or barely keeping your head above water. 

Maybe you lost a job recently. Or maybe you lost a loved one. Finances may be incredibly tight or you might be navigating some difficult relational issues this year. And then, of course, there’s the family dysfunction around the dinner table you’re not sure you can handle one. more. time.

With gratitude challenges popping into our social feeds and sparkling lights starting to decorate the town, it can feel like we’re alone in our pain. Of course, we’re not; this season is tough for many of us. 

I’ve had my fair share of dark and difficult holidays, full of uncertainty, depression, and loneliness. There have been years I’ve been far from everyone I loved and others where I was suffocating under strained relationships. Some years the depression and anxiety have been so oppressive that I could hardly muster the strength to get out of bed, let alone find any holiday cheer. 

Through those tough holiday seasons, I’ve learned that it’s okay to hurt when it seems like the whole world is full of warmth and joy. It’s okay to grieve hard losses – whether recent or decades-old – this time of year. It’s okay to take care of yourself. 

Here are a few things that have helped me through my tough holiday seasons:

Don’t pretend. 

Find a safe person to be honest with. Tell a friend, a loved one, or a good therapist that you’re struggling. Talk through the ache and the questions and the grief. Process your emotions instead of stuffing them down. We were made in the image of an emotional God who put on skin and wept and laughed and got angry. It’s okay to be real – and it’s the only path to healing. 

Of course, make sure you’re opening up to somebody who will be encouraging and understanding. If you don’t know anybody like that, find a good counselor. (If finances are a concern, google “sliding scale counselor” and the name of your city, or check out an online counseling service like BetterHelp or Talkspace). 

Be gentle with yourself.

If you’re exhausted, rest. If you feel overwhelmed and can’t commit to another party or cookie exchange, say no. Don’t beat yourself up for not keeping a breakneck pace.

Better yet, try not to let yourself get exhausted in the first place. Block rest into your calendar and treat it as sacred. Celebrate the small wins and remind yourself you’re doing the best you can. 

Set some boundaries.

Aside from making time to rest, it’s important to set some additional boundaries. For me, sometimes that means not spending time with people who are draining or hurtful to me. If I can’t avoid running into those people in a social setting, I’ll make plans to spend time with somebody refreshing after the tough situation. 

Some other good areas to consider boundaries are in finances (how much you’re willing/able to spend on the holiday season), personal space (maybe you don’t want to be hugged right now or to have people stay with you), and topics you don’t want to discuss. It’s tough to set boundaries, but I’ve found that when I know and communicate what I am and am not willing to do, my holidays (and life in general!) are much less stressful.

Look for tiny, lovely things.

I’m a huge fan of a gratitude practice, but there’s a big difference between clear-eyed, intentional gratitude and pasting a smile on because “‘tis the season to be jolly.” 

While many Christians will tell you to “just choose joy,” I’ve never been able to do that. Instead, I’ve learned I can cultivate some joy, even in my hardest seasons of depression and pain, by paying attention to the tiny, lovely things in life. 

I jot them down in a notebook or on slips of paper I keep in a jar on my desk: the warmth of my bed before I get up, a comforting cup of tea, something that made me smile for a moment. At first, I won’t feel anything different; it usually takes a few times before I notice a change. 

But keeping track of the little things reminds me there is goodness and beauty in the world even on my darkest days. It helps me cling to hope that I’ll see the light again.

Do something that fills your heart. 

Years ago, in an especially dark holiday season, I decided I wanted to rewrite the story I told myself about the holidays being hard. I was single and lonely, but I wanted some traditions to enjoy. So I put on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, got a tiny Christmas tree, and had my friend’s four-year-old daughter over to decorate it. And I took her to see a local ballet school’s production of The Nutcracker because I didn’t want to go alone. 

Another tradition that always fills my heart is to participate in a local toy drive. I know this isn’t financially feasible for everyone, but my husband and I try to budget for this and other opportunities to give this time of year. It feels good to share and reminds me that even when I’m struggling, I can still love and bless other people. 

More than anything, remember you’re not alone.

I know it can seem cheesy, but this time of year, I cling to the reminder that Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us. For me, this looks like rereading comforting passages from the Bible and journaling about what I know is true about a God who doesn’t fail or forsake me, despite what I sometimes feel.  

When I feel lonely during the holidays, when I ache and don’t know how to keep going, I remind myself that Christ put on skin so he could be close to me in all my brokenness.My friend, you aren’t alone, either. Our God wept and grieved, ached and was angry, knew betrayal and pain and loss, just like us. We’re in this together, you and me and God and millions of others who struggle alongside us. We can make it through.

7 Replies

  1. Mollie

    Hi Sarah!
    Thank you for your blog. So many times when I read it, I feel sooo much better. I mean to write and tell you that you make such a wonderful difference, but I just don’t. Dunno what stops me. However, this post just brought tears of relief to me. The best part, I think, was this,” It feels good to share and reminds me that even when I’m struggling, I can still love and bless other people.”
    I too, have found that when I give to another, it forces me to step out of myself, my feeling low self, and give even something as simple as a smile, to another person, I get lighter. Inside.
    So, thank you again for all you share/do for so many others.
    And here is a smile and a hug for you from me.



    1. Oh, Mollie, I’m so grateful this touched your heart. It’s crazy how the simple things can make such a huge difference. It never ceases to amaze me that the little things in life so often wind up being the big things. Take care of yourself <3 Sarah

  2. William Crowley

    Sarah, this is supposed to be my last holiday season with my family. (Will it?) I love you for the way you share yourself and tell about all the inner thoughts that I could never ever admit to another without your leadership. (Even more since you’re British and not likely to be associated within my inner circle). I have a tremendous amount of experience in controlling the demons of depression and those particular twists of thought they use to reach beneath your sanity. If I can help with advice or experience please do not hesitate to ask, as I will not be here much longer. Not everyone can be strong, but anyone can draw strength from the energies which flow through all life at all times. It’s an easy mental shift to touch and use this energy to help oneself. Many do it without even realizing it! I look forward to chatting with you young miss.

    1. Hi William,

      Thank you for the kind words! I hope you’re well and taking care of yourself. It’s so encouraraging to know this has helped you open up and share with others. Is this supposed to be your last holiday season because you’re ill? I hope it’s beautiful, full of peace and comfort and joy.

  3. Julie Nagy

    Sarah, I couldn’t have read this at a better time. My Dad passed away somewhat unexpectedly 2 weeks ago and honestly I would just like to skip the holidays entirely. But I have thought a lot about how I can use the unexpected blessings of grief to help others. And I continuously remind myself that Christmas is about JESUS and not all the shopping and stress. It’s a season to feel close to and celebrate Him which I need now more than ever.

    1. Hi Julie,

      I’m so very sorry for your loss. It must be gut-wrenching to walk through such grief, especially this time of year. I love that you’re looking for the “unexpected blessings of grief” in such a hard time and reminding yourself to celebrate Jesus coming close. Remember to be gentle with yourself and give yourself room to grieve and experience Jesus in the midst of that ache <3

  4. Robert R Wynn

    Thank you. I lost my wonderful wife, my best friend of 32 years Oct 20, 2021Being near 70 I don’t know if I will survive or even want to.

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