How to create a simple 5-step plan and avoid unnecessary anguish
Are you feeling a sense of dread deep in your belly as the holiday season begins to unfurl in all its festive glory?
This might be your first holiday without your loved one or your tenth.
If it feels too overwhelming, depressing, and exhausting to be in the presence of all the happiness and ho ho ho, consider opting out of holiday celebrations.
It is ok to take a break this year.
You don’t have to pretend to be strong and put up a brave front.
During the 2020 holiday season, instead of anticipation, I wanted to run screaming and disappear until January.
I was in a new city with no friends and a thousand miles away from any family members. The sense of disconnection and loneliness was absolute, and all the fa la la was a continuous gut-punch reminder that my mother, who had been the glue of the family, was dead.
At some point, I just decided that Christmas was going to be a day like any other and I was not going to do anything “Christmassy”.
This decision felt like releasing the pressure from a valve that had been holding judgment, angst, sadness, and loneliness.
Things to Consider if you Decide to Opt out of the Holidays
“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart: The secret anniversaries of the heart.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
To opt-out of the holidays is to actively decide not to participate in the festive atmosphere; the smell of warm cookies, bells jingling, and images of happy families gathered in the glow of Christmas lights.
It is to acknowledge that you simply cannot do joy, joy and need time for yourself because you miss your loved one terribly.
It is to acknowledge that you are feeling fragile, alone in the crowd and all the festivity portrayed in the world is a painful reminder of what you have lost.
Many of us might want — desperately — to opt out but have not given ourselves permission to do what feels best for us. We are not able to honor our capacity and allow ourselves flexibility and grace because there is a fear of offending others and causing ripples in the status quo so generously supplied by society and mass consumerism.
If you have been thinking about opting out but feel lost and have no idea how to go about doing it, in this article I provide you with a guide on how to make a plan and honor where you are.
Here are some steps to get you started.
- Acknowledge that you can’t handle the holidays this year and that your feelings are at diametrical odds with the feelings of joy, hope, and connection portrayed by mainstream culture.
- Give yourself permission to opt-out. It’s okay not to feel the spirit of the season.
- Validate and then challenge any guilt that arises. You owe it to yourself.
- Express your needs. Tell people you are not in a jolly mood this year.
- Clearly communicate your decision to opt out to others who may be. affected so that everyone is on the same page.
- Let go of what others think you “should do” and focus on what you need.
- Create a simple plan of what you will do to mark and cope with the holiday season.
Steps to Crafting Your Holiday Plan
Initially, my decision to opt out was not conscious.
It was a subconscious rebellion against all the holiday happiness and carols blasting out of every street corner which only served to transport me into a state of utter despair and emptiness.
What started out as a rebellion a year ago morphed into a reflection on why that particular holiday left me feeling peace instead of angst.
Reflection turned into an in-depth exploration of ways of coping with grief during special events like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays when grief triggers abound.
It just so happened that the next four months from April to July would provide the perfect testing ground to experiment because my mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, death, and funeral anniversary were all sandwiched into that time span.
By the end of the summer, it was clear to me that by being proactive in creating a plan, I was able to take control of my mental health, afford myself a sense of peace and permission to accept where I was, and stop trying to fit in with the crowd.
Here are the steps I followed that you can replicate for yourself.
Step 1: Brainstorm
On the actual day e.g., Christmas, kwanza, Hannukah, etc. you might find comfort in honoring old traditions or they might feel unbearable. Decide what works for you and brainstorm some different activities and rituals you might perform.
In my case, old traditions were out of the question and I decided to create some new ones. I have included them below and you can use them as starting point.
Devote the day to your loved one’s memory
“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” — Terry Pratchett
Here are some examples of rituals that you can include as you plan your day.
- Buy a special candle and light for your loved one
- Pull out old albums and spend some time looking at pictures
- Visit your loved one’s grave and leave some flowers, a blanket, a wreath, or any other item that has a special meaning for you
- Create a playlist. My mom loved Peter Paul and Mary and I would create a playlist with all their songs
- Write a poem about your loved one or a letter to them
- Plan a meal with your loved ones’ favorite recipes and desserts. My mother was a sucker for chocolate, and I remember buying and eating a whole chocolate cake one Christmas. I would not recommend this.
- Create a remembrance table and include pictures, mementos, and any other objects that have a special meaning
- Buy a gift. My mom had a wicked sense of fashion and had eagle eyes when it came to spotting gold at thrift stores, so I would go thrift shopping and buy something for myself that she would have bought for me
There are many other ways you can remember and honor your loved one during the holiday season. Be creative and check in with yourself about what feels right.
Devote the day to self-care
You can also choose to devote the day to yourself and do what feels good to you.
- Go on a long walk to your favorite spot
- Have a movie marathon
- See if you can find a church in your area holding a Blue Christmas service if Christmas is your holiday
- Spend the day immersed in a favorite hobby like painting or writing
- Prepare your favorite meal and indulge in your favorite treat
- Ask a friend to call you and set aside time to share a favorite memory of your loved one
- Make space for sorrow and other emotions that show up
- Change your scenery by taking a trip out of town
- Eat out with friends, attend a show or some other special event
Make a difference — Volunteer
When you are going through so much sadness and pain, bringing joy to someone else’s life might help you cope with your grief. See some ideas below on holiday projects you can give back to.
- Cook your loved one’s favorite meal and donate part of it to a family in need through a local church or charity
- Invite a friend who might otherwise be alone for the holidays
- Volunteer at a hospice, nursing home, hospital, children’s shelter, or soup kitchen
- Volunteer to work the holiday shift at work
Step 2: Decide how you want to spend the day
Once you have a list of ideas, narrow down the list to the ones that feel the most nourishing to you and decide at what times of the day you would like to perform them.
You can choose to devote the entire day to your loved one’s memory, practice self-care, or volunteer or you can choose to create a hybrid plan that includes all these areas.
Step 3: Identify people who will be able to support you
Identify the people who will be able to help and support you and give them a heads-up. I have a list of friends who are my backbone and always have them on speed dial for when things get hairy.
Step 4: Prep for the activities you will do
Purchase any items you need ahead of time, or contact any organizations you might want to, donate/volunteer to. For example, if you plan on making your loved one’s favorite meal and donating part of it, buy all the ingredients ahead of time and contact the organization you would like to donate the meal to.
Step 5: Execute Your Plan
Now that you have your plan, you are ready for the actual day. You might also consider creating a backup plan which can be as simple as watching tv all day if everything else feels overwhelming.
In 2020, I ended up having a low-key “me day” which left me feeling nurtured. See my plan below.
- Got up at 5:00 am to meditate
- Went back to bed and slept in
- Ate a simple breakfast of cereal
- Cooked my favorite Cameroonian meal (gari and eru)
- Had a glass of wine in my mother’s honor
- Spent some time journaling and reflecting next to the memory table I had created
- Took a long nap
- Spoke to some friends and family
- Binged watched movies on Netflix
- Relaxed with another glass of wine at dinner
- Journaled and reflected on the day
- Went to bed
The holidays are going to be difficult, but with preparation, you will be ok. You will get through it.
- Keep your plan as flexible and as simple as possible.
- Try to nurture and nourish yourself as much as possible by including self-care in your plan.
- Connect with your loved one by performing a ritual in their honor.
- Try not to compare other people’s experiences with yours as it might make you feel even more lonely.
- Celebrate yourself when you get to the end of the day because you were proactive in making a plan to support yourself.
- Don’t beat yourself up if the day ends up being a cry fest. It is completely normal.
Please remember that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season if you are grieving and it is ok to opt-out completely.
Based on my experience, the best way to cope with feelings of dread is to make a plan ahead of time and offer yourself some grace.
Sometimes the actual day itself is easier than you anticipated.
You got this!