Many who are in the midst of loss or life challenges at this time of year have questions about coping with the holidays. How do you handle the holidays; especially if you don’t feel like handling them at all? Read on for answers and a few great holiday suggestions:

Q. How should someone who is experiencing difficulty deal with the holidays in general?

A. We are indeed bombarded with stereotypical images of holidays-on-steroids at every turn… ads featuring swanky parties with impossibly beautiful (and presumably single) people sipping luxurious tipple from fine crystal stemware; the perfectly dressed family in a perfectly decorated house, swimming in a sea of perfectly wrapped presents while a perfect 10-course meal awaits on the perfectly appointed table. And who isn’t just a little tired of commercials with swooning couples gazing lovingly at small velvet jewelry boxes or cars topped with big red bows sitting in snow-covered driveways…

(…and yet, the car has never has any snow on it).

When you are coping with loss or other serious life challenges during the holidays, these images can be more than periodically irritating. They can also serve as a painful reminder of all that may be difficult for you right now. However, even with the barrage of unbelievably-idyllic images, do not try to ignore the holidays — it is impossible. There are many ways for you to enjoy the holidays; this does not have to be a time of loneliness and gloom.

Q. What if you are dealing with a loss situation — death of a spouse or a loved one, a divorce or break up, job loss, etc. — and you are just not in the mood to celebrate?

A. If you are coping with any kind of a loss situation, it will be human nature for those closest to you to try and “jolly” you out of what may be a place of pain or loneliness. Don’t feel obligated to be jolly. I always advise to really tune into you and if you do not feel like celebrating — don’t celebrate. It’s that simple and you owe no one any apologies or explanations. However, don’t confuse “celebrating” with “observing”. You can curtail the merrymaking and quietly observe the holidays in ways that can bring you peace and comfort.

Q. What if you are feeling the exact opposite; you feel the need to kick up your heels and other people do not think that it is appropriate?

A. No one gets to dictate your celebratory comfort level. Regardless of your situation, if you feel like celebrating the fact that even though you have experienced a loss, you are moving forward in a positive way — then do it. The only person permitted to determine what is or is not “appropriate” for you (be it during the holidays or in any area of your daily life) is you — and as long as you are not coping in a destructive manner, anything else you choose to do is fine.

Q. What are ways that people can enjoy the holidays that do not involve being “coupled off”?

A. There are a number of ways to observe the holidays that can bring you both peace and perhaps a bit of fun. A few ideas include:

1. Decorating your home: You don’t have to decorate in a way that rivals Snoopy’s dog house from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, but your spirit will lift by seeing even a few holiday decorations around your home. One of my favorite touches is placing cinnamon-scented pinecones throughout the house; so simple, inexpensive and the scent is irresistible.

2. Focusing on the beauty that is this time of year: Bundle up and take a walk around your neighborhood. Visit your local coffee house and treat yourself to a holiday tea or coffee blend. Check your newspaper for free local neighborhood events such as tree or menorah lightings, parades, light displays, etc., which can all be a lot of fun.

3. Turning inward: If seeking solace for you involves the spiritual, plan to attend a service at a church or synagogue or pursue any other meditative endeavors that bring you peace. Allow your faith to envelop you — it’s a beautiful, restorative feeling.

4. Treating yourself: Visit a cosmetic counter and try a mini-makeover, which you can generally do free of charge. Book a single spa treatment; this also need not be expensive. Take yourself out to a lovely lunch or quiet dinner at your favorite restaurant or bistro — you really do deserve it.

5. Inviting a few close friends over for a small cocktail party during the holiday period: Serve simple hors d’oeuvres, wine or a signature cocktail, sparkling cider and sparkling water with lemon. Don’t forget to have great music playing in the background. Have everyone dress up and include a silly game, like Taboo or Logo Party. Send your guests home with a small thank-you (like a picture frame or mugs filled with chocolate kisses or a single-serving instant coffee or cocoa mix) and offer warm chocolate chip cookies and shot glasses of cold milk as a good night snack.

Not in a party mood? Invite one or two close friends in to share coffee and a bible study or retro music and a holiday cookie-share. The bottom line is that whether it is two people or twenty, your spirits will be lifted by the company of those who care.

Q. What if you are coping with loss and you also have children?

A. We sometimes assume that children are always in the mood for a party, which may not be the case. Your children may simply want to draw near to you and keep things on the quiet side — don’t force merriment on them.

However, if the mood in the household indicates a willingness to have a little fun during the holidays, go right ahead! Get together with other single parents and kids for a “mini” slumber party, with age-appropriate activities. Serve popcorn, homemade mini-pizzas and make-your-own sundaes to the kids while parents enjoy drinks and simple hors d’oeuvres. Again, you can invite as many or as few as you wish and have a lovely time either way. It is entirely up to you.

Q. Family gatherings are a big part of the holiday season. How do you handle the potentially awkward questions that family and friends sometimes ask, i.e., “When are you going to settle down?”; “How’s your sex life?”; “Why aren’t you married yet?” to the single person or “Aren’t you ‘over it’ yet”; “Are you dating yet?”; “I’m going to fix you up / post your profile online…”, etc. to the divorced or widowed.

A. As tempting as it may be to do otherwise, you must respond politely — remember that people generally mean well. That said, you can also skirt questions like these if you feel that they are overly intrusive. If someone asks you when you’re going to “settle down”, ask them if you appear to be running wild. If you’re asked why you’re not married (or remarried) yet, explain that you are not in any hurry. If you’re divorced or widowed and you are asked anything that makes you even a little bit uncomfortable, simply reply by saying, “Thank you so much for being concerned about me, but I’m really doing OK.”

(…and if someone actually does have the nerve to ask about your sex life, smile sweetly and reply, “How’s YOURS?”).

Q. What happens if you want to do something different for the holidays (take a vacation alone, visit friends in another state) and you are met with resistance?

A. Understand that your loved ones want you with them at the holidays; however you also have the right to expect understanding of your wishes as well. Schedule an alternate time to have your own holiday get-together with whomever it is that has an issue with you breaking from tradition. Remember, their struggle with your absence at the holidays is their way of telling you that you are loved.

And one more thing:

We always feel better when we are in service to others. Why not think about:

1. Volunteering at a local soup kitchen, food pantry, homeless shelter or to an organization that is helping the less fortunate. Women’s shelters are badly in need as well — think along the lines of donating cosmetics (new and unused), clothing, winter outerwear, diapers, toys, etc.

2. Contacting a local assisted living home: The elderly are many times forgotten during the holidays and a visit from someone who cares will bring warmth to both their hearts and yours.

3. Adopting a family: Many families cannot afford holidays for their children and the a gift of a tree, filled stockings or a certificate from a local grocery store for a holiday dinner are all wonderful ways to help a family celebrate.

4. Adopting a soldier: Thousands of troops are stationed all over the world, far away from their loved ones. Something as simple as sending a card wishing a happy holiday and a safe and quick return home can mean so much.

The most important thing to remember during the holidays is to keep tuned into you, your needs and if applicable, the needs of your children. Don’t let anyone else “guilt” you or force you into social situations for which you are not yet ready or keep you from observing the holidays in any manner that you see fit. Above all, remember that this is your holiday season too. Make it a season that brings you the peace and happiness that you seek and that you deserve.

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