Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Surviving the holidays. Coping strategies for those 60 & Single

"The most profound relationship we'll ever have is the one with ourselves." - Shirley MacLaine

By the time we reach age 60, memories of holidays past can fill up our brains to over-flowing. As a kid Christmas and Thanksgiving were a potent and emotional way for my family to come together despite underlying power struggles or ongoing disappointments.
Those memories reach back to my early childhood while growing up on an Idaho farm when one Christmas my younger sister found a "magic" wand under the tree, waved it and discovered a saddle horse waiting for her outside at the fence. For me the best memories were from the night before Christmas when we turned out the lights, built a fire in the fireplace and munched on grilled tuna sandwiches and drank hot chocolate. It was so perfect. I was so happy there in the dark with the flickering fire and my family.
Memories of Christmases with my own children and extended family include grandparents arriving from afar and tons of food and presents. There was singing, big family dinners, open houses for friends and church choir concerts. A ton of activity. That was 20 years ago. This is now.
My children are grown and attending a East Coast family reunion this week with their father. Grandparents are either gone or so feeble that travel is out of the question. A divorce has changed my relationship with former step-children. An estranged daughter-in-law makes access to my only grandchild difficult.
Friends my age are in ill health. Those "family" experiences have slipped away to be replaced by something new. My situation (in limbo between past and present) is no worse and in many ways much better than many. I've moved on, I have a new relationship and new wonderful people to get to know.
But being single at 60 (widowed or divorced and even remarried after 60) during the holidays is a bit like walking through a mine field never knowing when something will blow up, triggering memories and the nostalgia that floods in with them. Death, separation, divorce, illness, family trauma, job loss or moving to a new location result in great losses that make the holidays difficult, observes writer Toni Coleman.
So how to cope? There's plenty on the Internet about "Surviving the Holidays" if you're single. My personal advice: TAKE CHARGE! Make this special time your own.
The first year that I was 60 & Single during the holidays, I went out alone on my farm property one snowy afternoon with my dog. Equipped with a hand saw, I found a tree the proper size for Christmas, cut it down and hitched it to the back of my SUV with a chain. I felt triumphant dragging it back to the house. "I can do this," I said to myself. As well, I gave myself time alone to grieve over my losses. You've got to keep processing what has happened, everything that's changed in your life.
Laura Petherbridge has written plenty about how to cope during the holidays when your marriage dies. Toni Coleman offers "Tips For Singles On Enjoying (and surviving) The Holidays." Below is my edited summary of their advice. Hey, being single during the holidays means having the freedom to make them your own in new ways. Down the road those memories will add to the rich pattern of your unique life.
Don't just sit there, do something. Instead of dwelling on what's missing, find ways to fill up your heart by giving love rather than trying to find it. It may be a simple as sitting quietly next to your dog and feeling the love between you. Or it may be visiting with a friend over coffee.
People come and go from our lives. We all die.
Rent some funny movies. Laugh. Sing. Be engaged in life. Go for a jog, get on the tread-mill.
"Surviving the Holidays" Tips from Laura Petherbridge:
- Don’t hibernate or wait until the day before the holiday to make a plan. Force yourself to be with other people, even if only briefly.
- Develop a coping strategy. Review whom to call or where to go if the stress or pain becomes too severe.
- Create new, meaningful traditions.
- Help your child or grandchild make a gift for an ex-daughter-in-law or former in-laws. This communicates your permission to love the other family, and greatly reduces fear and tension.
- Take notice of a married friend who may be discouraged or rejected. Remember, some of the loneliest people on the planet are married.
- Try out a new “family-focused” restaurant. Avoid the ones that cater to couples or may have romantic overtones.
- Have a potluck supper with other singles.
- Do something completely different. Go roller-skating, skiing, hiking to the mountains or to the beach.
- Send a card, flowers or a small gift to someone who has comforted and loved you.
- Write a poem or journal entry listing things you’re grateful for.
- Treat yourself to a massage, manicure or pedicure.
- Immerse your family in assembling a Lego adventure or a jigsaw puzzle.
- Get out the hammer and build something.
- Treat yourself to cozy bed linens or a new nightgown in a magnificent color.
- Try a new pillow or neck exercises. They work wonders for tension.
- Make yourself a warm comforting drink, such as hot cocoa, chai or herbal tea.
- Invite friends over for dinner and use the good linens and china.
- Attend a hockey or basketball game, or participate in one.
- Get enough sunshine. Winter’s shorter daylight hours can take their toll on the emotions. If you work where there are few windows, take a walk during lunch or on your break.
- Exercise. It produces natural stress reducers, and it’s a great way to meet new people.
- If you’re feeling suicidal, seek help immediately. The phone number of your counselor, pastor, close friend or hotline should be taped to your phone. Don’t minimize the effect the holiday can have on your mental state.
- Don’t drink too much. Alcohol is a depressant.
- Tuck away photographs or items that will trigger melancholy.
- Don't go to couples events.
From Toni Coleman:
PREPARE – The ambush of emotions can attack at any time; prepare beforehand.
ACCEPT the difficulty of this time of year and your loss. Remind yourself that it’s a season and it will pass.
SOCIALIZE – Don’t hibernate. Insecure feelings may tempt you to isolate, but force yourself to go out even if it’s only for a short time.
LOWER your expectations – Movies and songs paint an unrealistic picture of the holidays.
DON’T ANESTHETIZE the pain with drugs or alcohol – Numbing emotional distress with chemicals creates more depression.
TRIMMING – If old ornaments or trimmings cause too much pain, don’t hang them this year. Put them aside for another time.
GET UP AND MOVE – Take care of your physical well-being. Healthy foods will give you strength; fattening and sugar-filled foods can worsen your depression. Exercise produces natural stress reducers.
SHOP online if going to the mall is too stressful.
COPING STRATEGY – Have the phone number of your counselor, pastor, church, close friend or hotline already taped to your phone. Make the commitment to call someone if negative thoughts get fierce.
LIGHT – Get some sunshine. Winter can take its toll on your emotions by the loss of sun you experience.INVITE a new (same-sex) friend to see a movie, have dinner or help decorate the house.
SET BOUNDARIES – Precisely explain to your family and friends what you are capable of doing this year, and what you aren’t. Don’t let others guilt you into taking on more than you can handle.
REACH OTHERS by discovering people who might be alone during the holidays.

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