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Navigating the Holidays After Major Life Changes


Lauren Tully
December 15, 2022

Navigating the Holidays After Major Life Changes: It’s the most wonderful time of the year…. except when it’s not. 


The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes joy and a little extra stress for many. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 38% of Americans surveyed said their stress levels increased during the holiday season due to lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings.


Each year the holidays creep up sooner than the last. Days before Halloween this year, I noticed wreaths going up at my local grocery store, and I began to think about my family’s upcoming holiday plans. Soon the sound of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ began following me wherever I went, my kids wanted to know when they’d see Santa, and before I knew it, we were about to host 20 people at our home for Thanksgiving dinner. Suddenly, there was so much to do, and while it was indeed a bit stressful and jam-packed, it is the first holiday season in over three years that’s felt semi-normal again.


When The Holidays Bring Unexpected Challenges


Since before I can remember, I have loved everything about the holidays. Stressful as it may be, I look forward to the decorations, extra time with family, holiday cards, parties, and all things that come along with it. Until 2020 when my father died suddenly, and I found myself in the middle of a divorce. For the first time in my life, nothing about the holidays interested me. Instead, it scared me and stressed me out.


During a session with my therapist, I brought up my fears about the upcoming holidays. What would this new season look like? Do I bother to decorate? What about our family traditions? And what would I do when my kids went to spend time with their dad, and I was left alone? The only answers I could find up to that point were filled with tears.


As I sat there crying, my therapist looked at me and said, “If Christmas decorations make you happy, THIS is the year you must put them up.” I froze. I didn’t know how I would do it myself, but I decided to take her advice and try. In truth, I cried, pulling the decorations out of storage, but slowly the tears began to stop, and I started to figure out how to do it on my own. And it did make me happier.


In fact, research supports the idea that people who participate in family traditions and rituals are likely to add to their overall enjoyment of the holiday. With that in mind, I bought a tree for my room and a small one for each of my children. At first, it felt a little silly to spend extra money on new Christmas decorations, but three years later, they are some of the ones I cherish most. My kids were thrilled when the soft white and colored lights from the trees lit up each of our rooms.


When putting up the lights outside my house seemed overwhelming, I called a friend to come over and help. We drank wine, put on Christmas music, and celebrated when we finally got them up in the cold at 10 pm. It was the perfect mix of old and new. That same friend also came over to keep me company, and make vision boards, when my kids were at their dad’s house, giving me something to do and look forward to.  


Finding Ways to Remember a Loved One


Everyone told me not to make big decisions for a year after a divorce and the loss of a parent. So naturally, I decided to ignore them and get a puppy. My dad had loved his dog, so I decided maybe the kids, and I needed one too and used some of the money he left behind to get a mini Goldendoodle—a final gift from him. We named him Elton, after one of my dad’s favorite musicians, and brought him home just in time for Christmas. Looking back on it, getting Elton was one of the best decisions I made in 2020. 


Grief during the holidays does not carry a one size fits all solution. However, a longitudinal study by Catherine Carnelley, Camile Wortman, and their colleagues showed that major holidays could amplify feelings of loss, especially during the first few years after a loss. For me, missing my dad was and still is especially hard during the holiday season but doing things he loved, having Elton, and keeping up with certain family traditions certainly helps me get through it.


Finding Ways to Pivot  


Sending Christmas cards had always been something I loved to do until I was divorced and dealing with the loss of my dad. An update on our year wasn’t something I felt like sending at first. “Dear friends and family, this year was horrible, and I cried a lot” didn’t seem like something people would enjoy receiving in their mailboxes. I hadn’t bothered with family photos, but the more I thought about it, the more sending a card still felt important to me. So, I decided to forgo my annual written update and just sent a card with a photo of the kids and our new puppy—three beautiful things in my life worth celebrating.


I ran into a similar problem this year when I went to create our card and realized that two years into a new relationship, I am now a part of a blended family. We are not married, but we live together and are happy. Do I announce that in a holiday card? What would everyone, including our ex-spouses, think? I scoured the internet to see what google said about creating a card that included myself, my kids, my boyfriend, and his son. The results were slim to none. But again, sending the card felt important to me, so I created one.


Creating New Traditions 


One of the hardest things for my kids was having to split holidays between two houses. In truth, it was hard for me, too, and still is sometimes. Not having them on Thanksgiving and Christmas morning felt off. But just as we found new ways to decorate for the holidays, we also found new ways to celebrate them. Things like donuts on Christmas eve, and movie marathons snuggled up on the couch became a new tradition. On the year I didn’t have my kids for Christmas eve, I went to a midnight service. I took time to actually enjoy my coffee Christmas morning while I anxiously awaited their arrival midafternoon.


The Holidays in Healthcare


Even without major life-changing events, the holiday season can be challenging, especially for healthcare professionals following the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. A 2021 study from the American Psychiatric Association found that 2 in 5 healthcare workers were anxious about working long hours in the upcoming holiday season and 54% said their overall stress level increases during the holiday season.


This year, as a possible recession looms, healthcare workers may find themselves inundated with the trifecta of children filling doctor’s offices and ICUs due to RSV, the flu, and COVID. In November, the CDC reported that at least 4.4 million Americans had already been sick with the flu. So now, more than ever, finding ways to manage stress and stay healthy is needed.


Finding Joy in The Holidays Again 


Regardless of what it is, any stressful event or significant life change can make the holiday season even more of a challenge. So, here are a few things that helped me and might help you or a loved one enjoy the holiday season just a little bit more.


Start small.

If this is the first year after a significant life change or if it’s been a tough year in general, recognizing your limits is a great first step to improving the holiday season. For example, does putting up decorations feel daunting? Just put up your favorites, or skip them altogether. If you don’t feel up to hosting this holiday season, see if a friend or family member can host and find other ways to pitch in. By starting small and doing the things that make you happy, you’ll be able to take the time you need to enjoy them instead of stressing about what isn’t getting done.


Embrace imperfection and reframe your resolutions.

The key to changing your mindset about how the holidays should be is recognizing that perfection is not attainable and often not enjoyable. Chances are this year won’t be like years in the past. You might cry some or have more challenging days than others and that’s ok. You may have to change old traditions and find new ones. However, by giving yourself grace and understanding that things may not go as planned you open yourself up to finding more joy in the things that do go well.


Being social may be more helpful than you think. 

While it’s easy to go into hiding after a significant life change or loss, it’s important to find support where you can. Research shows that social support can enhance human health and well-being, especially after a loss or traumatic event. In contrast, poor social support and loneliness can adversely impact your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to run out to every holiday party you’re invited to, but taking time to spend with friends and family during this time and knowing when to ask for support may be helpful.


The wondrous gift, that is, sleep.

A good night’s sleep can make a world of difference. Unfortunately, Americans, and especially healthcare workers, don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults 18-60 years sleep at least 7 hours each night to promote optimal health and well-being. During the holidays, stress, excess food, depression, alcohol, and sugar interfere with adequate sleep too. Sleep specialist Kristen Knutson, an associate professor of neurology and preventative medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, shares with CNN that, “even a night or two of short sleep can have short-term effects on your health.” Her suggestion? “You will enjoy the holidays more if you can protect your sleep time—and you may get more done if you aren’t tired and inefficient from sleep deprivation.”


Let compassion for yourself and others lead the way. 

We are often inundated with reminders not to neglect caring for our body and mind, especially while caring for others. But rarely do they explain how we should implement self-care without creating more stress in our lives. A recent survey revealed that 67% of Americans this holiday season are considering seeking professional mental health care, while 8% would like to seek help but can’t afford it. So if you are struggling and feel you may need professional help, seek it out. One of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself is therapy, and fortunately, there are now some more affordable telehealth therapy options you can explore too. Other forms of selfcare may include, exercise, seeing friends and family, getting adequate sleep, and setting healthy boundaries. 


The most beneficial form of self-care in my life has come from the personal decision to forget where I think I should be and instead meet myself right where I am; to discover what I need to be happy in that moment and in the future. Easier said than done. Finding compassion for yourself and remembering that everyone else is facing their own challenges helps me navigate things not just during the holidays but year-round. 


Three years later, we are still figuring out some holiday obstacles, but as I find myself stressing about the number of chairs I need for our loved ones to gather, I am genuinely thankful for the lessons I’ve learned through unexpected change and grief. The most important one being that this too shall pass, and eventually it does, and maybe even for the better.


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