Self-care is okay during the holidays

Published 4:07 pm Sunday, December 19, 2021

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Holidays are hard under normal circumstances. Among other things, we must contend with the anxiety over wrapping presents, cooking hams, and keeping the toddlers from burning their little fingers on elegantly arranged candles.  Those things haven’t gone away, but we also add the general stress and mental un-ease resulting from another Christmas celebrated during a pandemic.

Yet there are those who suffer from another kind of pain, a pain that not all of us are dealing with so acutely.  There is something about this season that compounds the grief felt due to the death of a beloved friend or family member.  What should be a time of festivities and, yes, even busy-ness becomes a time of navigating the world with an external smile but internally a storm of grief and loss rages, threatening to take over and render the joy of this season meaningless.

It’s unimaginably difficult to spend a first Christmas without one’s spouse of 30 years.  All the traditions full of meaning and history become reminders of a life that can never be regained.  And it’s hard.  My God, is it hard.

Maybe it’s not death that has caused the pain, but divorce.  A first holiday spent alone in a new two-bedroom apartment is not particularly enjoyable, even if the divorce was ultimately a good thing. Whatever the cause, there are those who have experienced significant disruption in their lives which makes the joy of this season seem out of reach.

We aren’t particularly great as a culture talking about our vulnerabilities and emotions when they are painful.  It’s as if positivity is the only acceptable emotion to show in public.  Just think about how people react when you honestly answer their question of “How are you?” I’ve replied with something along the lines of ‘It’s a pretty terrible day’ and received silence and awkwardness in return. But during the holiday season, this impulse to mask our pain is even greater.

If you are experiencing grief, despair, or loss this year but feel like you have nowhere to take your pain, then I feel like I should apologize on behalf of all those around you who have let you down. Your pain is not inappropriate or a burden.  What is inappropriate is the way our culture fails to make space for honest emotions. You are not the problem.  An emotionally stunted culture of faux positivity is the problem.

I read something from a therapist that I found quite helpful. “Don’t wish people a happy holiday. Wish them a gentle holiday.” Her logic was that, for many, a happy holiday is an impossibility.  But by recognizing this, we can, with our words and well-wishes, make the space necessary for our friends and family to move through the holidays in ways that don’t feel false or add to the pain already experienced.

My friends, you don’t owe anybody anything this Christmas. I hope you feel free to take the space you need to rest and grieve.  There is so much competing for our time and attention that we forget to take care of ourselves, especially as we celebrate a holiday that has giving to others as a central component. Yet taking care of yourself is perhaps the greatest gift you can give to anybody. So, have a gentle Christmas season. Do what you need to stay healthy. And know that I am here if you need a listening ear.


Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington