As December rolls in, the famous Andy Williams and those singing along declare, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Yet, this claim does not always ring true for everyone. The reality is that this season is often more complex and challenging than the hallmark tidings reveal. Instead of pure joy or caroling cheer, many of us experience a steep increase in stress, loneliness, and grief during the holiday season.
The wave of holiday grief hits incredibly close to home this year. Just 6 months ago, I lost my Dad. It will be the first Christmas of my adult life without his silly early morning text written in all caps with a request for a photo of my cat under the tree. It will also be the first year that he won’t be at the table eating a sleeve of cookies for breakfast (i.e. cleaning up after Santa) or napping on the couch surrounded by wrapping paper before he gets up the energy to plow the snowy driveways of all of our neighbors.
As I draw on the memories that are no longer my family’s present reality, I notice the painful feelings quietly knocking at the door to my heart. During the holiday season, we are subject to reminders of the one’s that we’ve lost physically or relationally, recently or those in the distant past. Similarly, we are subject to the emotional impact of these reminders. Experiences of intense sadness, anger, guilt and urges to withdraw become inconveniently situated amidst social gatherings of togetherness and blatant evidence of life’s gifts. So, for the sake of holiday cheer, will I have to box up my grief tied with a bow only to unwrap it again on New Year’s Day?
This is a dilemma that those in mourning must ask themselves and it arises out of the belief that happiness can only be felt in the absence of sadness. However, this is an emotional myth. According to a foundational principle of DBT, Dialectics, no one experience precludes the existence of another. Grief AND joy are possible, even within the same moment and certainly within the same month. So instead of temporarily exiling my very real and very valid feelings of loss, I can instead practice dialectical thinking to invite compassion, flexibility, and balance into my life.
To practice dialectical thinking, first bring awareness to the present moment. What feelings, thoughts or sensations am I experiencing? Perhaps I notice heaviness in my shoulder and identify sadness. Perhaps I also notice a subtle beam of lightness in my chest. Next, I give myself permission to accept that both experiences, the heaviness and the lightness, are true and valid. I can use the word ‘and’ to promote their synthesis. For example, I feel the heavy weight of sadness in my body and the lightness in my chest reminding me that I have not lost my capacity for joy.
Through dialectical thinking, we can honor the totality of our honest human experience and restore a sense of balance in the presence of intense emotions. We can then give ourselves what we need and set boundaries with others. The key to navigating this season is not to dismiss difficult feelings or to overshadow them with distractions or a facade. Rather, it is to be present in each moment, allowing the painful and comforting sensations to be just as they are, and ultimately offering ourselves the gift of dialectics this year.
Sending peace and ease your way! Happy Holidays!