By Miriam Longobardi
Many people experience the holidays alone, and that’s true, whether or not the choice is your own. Perhaps your grown child is spending the holidays with the in-laws or you’re newly separated or divorced and your children will be with the other parent. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one may be facing the first holiday season without that person. Regardless of circumstances, there are strategies to ensure that holidays can be as peaceful and happy as possible!
As a single parent with sole custody, I am fortunate to have my children with me all the time, holidays included. Our traditions are a combination of those of my own childhood and newly created routines that have evolved over the years. One of our most difficult holidays was the first Christmas without my father, who had been the central father-figure of my children’s lives. We honored him by reliving happy memories of the years we had with him. It did not completely remove our sadness at his loss, but we tried to focus on the loving memories of him that we hold dear. Now that my oldest daughter is off to college, having her back in the house brings an extra energy to our season. I treasure our time together.
Sometimes there are fairly unique circumstances that have a family separated. Last year Shari, a local mother of two, remained home with the children, both high school students, while her husband Mitchell accepted a three-year assignment in Japan. The decision to have the family living apart while he takes advantage of a great business opportunity was not easy, nor was adjusting to their first holiday season apart.
“Being single last year during the holidays was extra difficult because I felt I had to do everything two adults had done in years prior. I thought I’d fail if I didn’t get it all done,” she shared. Succumbing to pressure she put on herself, she stayed up late and woke up early to work, cook, clean, decorate, shop, and bake and wound up run-down and sick through most of the season. “Before that, I had not been sick in nearly four years, so I knew I needed a different approach this year. I started meditating, took courses on mindfulness, and have decided that this is the year I approach that to-do list with a new and reasonable attitude. I have to enjoy the moment, each moment, whether or not my husband is there to enjoy it with me.”
If we feel well physically, we will cope more easily with holiday stress of any sort, suggests Sharon Gilchrest-O’Neill, Ed.S., LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Mount Kisco and the author of Sheltering Thoughts About Loss and Grief, among other books. Getting enough exercise releases endorphins that help maintain energy levels. For people prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, head outside for fresh air and whatever sunshine is available for a vitamin D boost.
Staying connected to others is also important and Gilchrest-O’Neill recommends old-fashioned phone calls versus emails or texting, as well as getting enough sleep and eating as healthy as possible despite the many tempting holiday treats.
For families living with divorce, she recommends keeping things as calm and uncomplicated as possible. “This is not the time to deviate from your child custody agreements as consistency over time is critical for children’s sense of security. This is definitely not the time to bring a new person into the mix, someone you’ve been dating for a month or two. Be prepared for the inevitable feelings of loss that you will need to deal with; consider that very often these are not directly about your ex-spouse, but rather about the life you’ve created over the years,” she said. “If you’ve had a favorite custom or special food that makes you happy, be certain to carry on with it.”
Another friend of mine who is single embraces the fact that she does not have to share her holidays with any in-laws. Caroline, now in her 40s, was married briefly in her 20s and is a wonderful hostess who has always loved to entertain.
“I don’t have to worry about someone’s crabby aunt who’s going to complain about everything or putting my family aside to spend time with someone else’s. I have taken trips and flown off to visit friends in faraway places during the holidays,” she said. “I throw parties and gather together people of my own choosing and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”
If you find yourself alone during the holidays, have a list of fun or interesting things you have been meaning to do or places to go and make sure you do something enjoyable just for you. Indulge in a spa treatment or a bucket of popcorn while watching one of the newly released films.
Reach out to a friend with whom you have lost touch. Staying connected to others, taking care of ourselves, drawing the line on that to-do list and prioritizing obligations are steps we can take throughout the year, but are especially important at a time of year when the pressure to celebrate can overwhelm. Take time for you this holiday season and get the New Year started right.
Miriam Longobardi is a freelance writer, fourth grade teacher and single mother of two daughters living in Westchester. A breast cancer survivor, she volunteers for the American Cancer Society, has completed four marathons and travels the world. Follow her on Twitter @writerMimiLong.