Holiday Stress at Family Gatherings (or Finding Joy in New Traditions)
By: Karen
December 1, 2013

Holiday stress associated with family gatherings is a common topic of conversation and the subject of many jokes. A client brought me a package of cocktail napkins with an awkward family photo and the caption I’ll be home for Christmas (and in therapy the day after). I laughed heartily and realized it struck a chord deep within.  These family gatherings are opportunities for learning! They offer a chance to consider it might be better to let go of some traditions to which we are holding tight. That thought brings me to this very personal blog.

Individuals change and grow, as do the families to which they belong. Some  changes are joyful and some are difficult. It is wonderful to see the joy of new parents and grandparents as they enter into the holiday season with their tiny new family members. I love to witness this joy shared on the Facebook pages of friends. However, there sometimes comes a renegade tear when I recall my grown daughters as children and remember their excitement during this time of year. 

One daughter lives out of town and the other will most likely move within the next year or two. To date they have both continued to come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year there have been rumblings about splitting holidays with the boyfriends’ families. My response to their tentative questioning has been very brave. I say, “Things are bound to change and I am okay with that.” A perfectly intellectual yet truthful response. CRAP! It may be time to take some of my own advice. As families change it is necessary to allow traditions to change with them.  Once the idea was out in the open, we began to discuss options for changing our holidays. We may even consider traveling to my daughter’s home for Christmas, letting go and creating new memories. The conversations were good and fruitful. However, when finally alone, I must admit more than one renegade tear found its way down my cheek.

These changes to my family are the result of natural progression and are comparatively easy to deal with. There are painful changes in family structures which force a less gentle and more immediate release of traditions. Divorce, death and alienation are some changes that have created chaos in the lives of my clients. The holidays do not stop in consideration of people experiencing painful changes. The resiliency of the human spirit must often take over.

A divorced client is grieving the loss of his dream family. Healing began with acknowledgement of the difference between his dream and the reality in both his family of origin and his marital family. For the sake of his young children, he understands he must embark upon a journey to find new joy, creating new memories and traditions. His holding on and letting go has been and will continue to be the focus of his work in the counseling room.

A client, whose mother died during the holidays last year, fears she has regressed to the initial stage of grieving. However, this season’s grief includes new dimensions. She is working through the loss of the immortality of her mom and the childhood which seemed to vanish with her. As a mature single woman, my client is experiencing the pain of acknowledging and simultaneously releasing the dream of having her own traditional family. Holding on and letting go will be challenging work, which can open the door to new joy created by increased self-awareness and honesty.

A couple has experienced alienation from their son due to his drug abuse. They are grieving the loss of their perfect family which is hitting them hard during the holidays. Their pain is intense as they begin to sense that perfection is an illusion. They are discovering that illusion began with their families of origin where they each learned the art of denial. Their denial during the early stages of their son’s drug use has left them saddled with guilt and shame.  Developing a healthy pattern of holding on and letting go is difficult when illusions have been with you since childhood. They are accepting the challenge.

During an initial session, I tell clients they will likely be angry with me at some time during our work together. If anger occurs it is when I force honesty and expose previously denied self-awareness . At the very least, what I have to say will sometimes make them, and maybe you, uncomfortable. This may be one of those times…

The changes and pain which may be with you this holiday season offer an opportunity to grow. Though difficult, please embrace the release of illusion, the joy of honesty, and the creation of new memories.