We’d like to think that when the holiday frenzy kicks off each year, it will deliver what it persistently promises – peace, joy, harmony and abundance. We do our best to embrace the cheerful spirit, but there are times when we would rather not deck the halls and be forced fed anything festive. It can take a lot of energy to focus on gratitude and jingle bells.
Several years ago I had a client who chose to stay home alone with a ham sandwich each Thanksgiving. A time he chose to spend solitarily rather than among family who would only cause him to lose his appetite. Perhaps it seemed radical, but it was a holiday on his terms. Years prior, he had suffered through a devastating divorce that left him dazed and defeated, and the holidays only amplified the pain. His self-made ham sandwich didn’t judge.
Other than divorce there are many other losses and types of grief that alter the taste of the holidays. The first holiday season after a significant or unexpected loss can seem entirely foreign, as if everything we celebrated prior was a lie. We can only hope that this disappointing reality check will spare us until we are well-adjusted adults, having had the chance to frolic in the innocent snow, believe in Santa and sit around a crowded table with a catalogue centerpiece.
For me the 2001 holiday season is a blur. I was cruelly made fiancé-less that September and considering Pete relished in all things Christmas I couldn’t bear to hear a single Christmas carol. Suddenly all that was once fresh was spoiled. So I just held my breath until it was all over, reconciling that this most wonderful time of the year was no longer for me but for those whose hearts had been spared. For years I elected to spend the holidays with his family instead of my own because it was less uncomfortable to be around those who were also missing a piece of themselves. I didn’t have to put up any front.
December 1st is Pete’s birthday. The beginning of his favorite season, his celebration of life was sandwiched between turkey and Christmas trees. He loved decorating and taking in the spirit of the season. And then he left his spirit behind. For many of us, the end of 2001 was not wrapped up neatly in bright and colorful wrapping paper.
Still, to honor him and to help grapple with his sudden absence, I organized a party on December 1st, 2001 in a local NYC bar he frequented with his buddies. We, his friends and mine, talked about him in a place where his presence lingered. We laughed at the funny stories we could still hear him tell. And we actually found some peace, joy, harmony and abundance among each other in that sore space. I think it made the rest of that month a touch more tolerable.
I’ve since let the holiday magic back in, just as I let life back in. Traditions (and good marketing) have a way of pulling us toward the warm and fuzzy feeling of hope (even if we know better). But for those who have been deprived, for the ones still suffering a hurt who no longer feel they have a seat at the table, our best gift to them is time. We let them break tradition rather than break bread. We let them tell us how they want to spend a day that does not need to be special because the calendar says so. We allow them to eat alone or toast to an empty chair. We give them space to mourn, rebel and set new rituals in motion that will ease the pain and spare them the heartburn the holidays can bring.