Preparing for Christmas without Them

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People who love us want what’s best for us so that we can thrive and be happy. We honor them when we love and take care of ourselves. In fact, we owe it to their memory and to their living presence in our lives to create meaning and purpose, to find our place of joy in the time that we have left.

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The holiday season is one of the hardest times of year for those of us who have lost someone we love. Preparing for Christmas without them is never easy; but with some forethought, we can draw strength from their living presence in our hearts throughout the holiday season and beyond. 

Life was starting to feel somewhat normal. We’d have good days and bad, of course. Then the calendar changed. The season brings us back to traditions we’ve made with people we love the most. Once they’ve passed, our Christmas has a piece missing. You may remember all the times he drove you to the store in the middle of the night on Black Friday, or how beautifully she decorated the home you shared. Those who have lost children remember when they were little, and how much fun you had watching them unwrap their gifts.

Christmas begins to feel haunted for us after they pass. We don’t want to decorate, go to parties, or be around the music and people. We procrastinate and then ultimately let things slide. The problem here is that if we give into the voice that says, “I don’t feel like doing…,” we often won’t. Shutting ourselves in will have a cyclical effect that can lead to depression, a debilitating illness that’s hard to see our way out of once we’re in it.

If you’re struggling to muster your own motivation, consider your answer to this question: What would the person who’s passed want for you? People who love us want what’s best for us so that we can thrive and be happy. We honor them when we love and take care of ourselves. In fact, we owe it to their memory and to their living presence in our lives to create meaning and purpose, to find our place of joy in the time that we have left.

As difficult as it is, we can begin this process by adopting an attitude of ‘Yes.’ Accept invitations that come your way, and don’t back out of them. People care and that’s why they’re inviting us to things. Maybe they want us to feel included or maybe they just like our company. Be grateful that you have these folks. These are our angels on Earth. Even if we don’t feel especially festive, we do ourselves a favor by getting out and being with them during the holidays.

One of the complicated feelings that often comes with grief is guilt from allowing ourselves to have a good time, or even simply continuing to exist after the person we loved has passed. This can feel especially true if we outlived a child or younger spouse, partner, or close friend. Questions of ‘why?’ come up as we try to find meaning in an unnatural order of things.

In dealing with guilt feelings, the holiday season can be an especially valuable time to commemorate the person. I clear a small space for pictures of my father who committed suicide when I was 24 (the featured image for this blog is from his last Christmas) as well as my grandmothers and other people I love who have passed. A small scented candle, lights, perhaps some ornaments and religious symbols create a quiet space to contemplate and celebrate their memory.

In the spirit of gifting during the season, our commemoration might include a gift of time or monetary value to a charity that might have special meaning to the memory of the person who’s passed. A donation to a suicide hotline, a cancer or diabetes research organization, or a charitable institution that provides gifts for children in poverty are excellent ways to specify your commemorative intention. Our time would also be welcomed by any number or organizations who carry out special functions during holiday periods, such as food pantries and meal delivery services.

Whether we volunteer time or money in a way we haven’t done before, consider that this is a good time in general for beginning new traditions of giving to ourselves. We find meaning when we allow ourselves to do things we never did before but wanted to. Go see the Christmas show you always wanted, or get friends together and see the light display in the little town down the road. Be purposeful in finding new and unexpected things that give you pleasure.

The experience of grief isn’t about trying to fill holes in our hearts. It’s about understanding the hole as a space that will always be occupied by the living memory that remains with us after a person’s physical body is no longer. Our task of grieving is about honoring that presence. We do this by living our lives to the fullest because it’s exactly what they’d want us to do.

If you’re feeling especially low over the holiday season, Psychology Today has an excellent website for finding a therapist in your area who specializes in grief. You can also find grief support groups, many that are free, via a Google search. Please don’t isolate yourself.

5 Wellness Tips for Holidays with your Politically Divided Family

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Sure, their political opinions may seem to highlight their arrogance, ignorance, or whatever other qualities you ascribe to them. Each person has more to them though, and you may in fact have fond childhood memories of how generous, protective, kind, or whatever else the person’s been to you. Go deep.

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They made you furious with their political comments. You unfriended and blocked them on Facebook, and now the prospect of asking them to pass you the gravy at the dinner table has you on edge. A little thought beforehand on how to proactively manage these situations can go a long way. Here are 5 wellness tips you can use to stay sane while with your politically divided family this holiday season.

By their nature, holiday gatherings with relatives are stressful events for many of you who may not feel especially close to or enjoy the company of your families. After all, time with relatives can kick up old, unresolved rivalries that center around jealousy, resentment, and all sorts of other unpleasant emotions; and that’s in historically unremarkable years. 2016 is anything but; and as the election has highlighted, this is a nation in which values and beliefs sharply divide people, some of whom you’ll be seeing in the days and weeks to come. Indeed, the holiday turkeys are coming home to roost.

It’s important to note that there are legitimate reasons to avoid family. I contend that no survivor of family violence is required to break bread with her or his perpetrator. Nor do I believe that any person has to spend time in a demoralizing, degrading, or humiliating environment. If for example, based on recent history, you have strong evidence that your family will disparage your partner who’s from another race or religion, or that you as an LGBT individual will hear homo-hating or trans-shaming comments such that you will leave there with your own mental health significantly disrupted, please rethink this obligation. Psychological and emotional safety eclipses the need to make your grandmother happy by placing yourself in harm’s way.

For everyone else, here are 5 tips for surviving and perhaps learning to enjoy time with your families, no matter how politically divided you may be:

1. Find a quality you admire or even love in your politically opposite family member(s). Sure, their political opinions may seem to highlight their arrogance, ignorance, or whatever other qualities you ascribe to them. Each person has more to them though, and you may in fact have fond childhood memories of how generous, protective, kind, or however else the person’s been to you. Go deep. Maybe the person fought in a war, worked a labor-intensive factory job, or overcame a really difficult obstacle. Giving yourself time to reflect on these qualities about the person builds dimension in your understanding of her or his character.

Even as you take the time to identify qualities you admire,

2. Don’t make their political decisions about you. It’s hard not to do this with politics. For most of us, the personal has become so very political; and we assume that a vote for the other candidate is a vote against and even an attack on us. If the person has stated this to be the case, you have a right to avoid interaction with her or him. Contrary to what your choice of media might tell you though, I submit that most voters didn’t select a particular candidate with hate in their hearts. As with many of you, fear was probably the prevalent feeling that motivated their vote. Fear is a deep-seated emotion that’s hard to explain to someone who fears something different; and sadly, it’s an easily manipulated emotion.

To the extent that you can recognize fear as something you’ve both experienced,

3. Ask them what it is they value that led to their voting choice. Admittedly, this is a difficult one, and I only recommend it if you’re truly open to understanding the other person and taking the dialogue beyond the sound bites that strictly criticize each other’s candidate. If you’re truly open and willing to engage from a position of listening first before expecting to be heard, you may find that your ability to dialogue transforms something within both of you. You won’t walk away with different politics, but you may in fact find that your political Other is not so very different from you in wanting a safer, surer world; whatever that vision may be.

Even with the intentions of openness, you may still find yourself triggered in a situation that occurs. To prepare for these instances,

4. Have a plan to recenter yourself in moments of stress. Maybe they make the offhand remark, or maybe they’re goading you out of humor. Family members often push each other’s buttons, after all. Don’t let anger ruin your day. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, take three deep breaths before you respond. You may be taking a lot of deep breath trios, in fact; but doing so will have a calming effect that will help you make it through the day. It may also allow you to return to the previous tips so that you can create a less stressful, even interesting and engaging day.

Even if these steps are a struggle,

5. Keep in mind that the time you have today is not guaranteed for tomorrow. You may be extremely angry in the moment and tell yourself you don’t care if you ever see these people again. You may mean that to some degree right now; but if something happened and your last words or deeds were hostile, would you really want that sitting with you for the rest of your life? Put another way, each year you are one step closer to the days when you’ll never see members of your family again. Assuming that the Trump presidency isn’t the cataclysm that either you or your relative(s) foresee, what seems important today will probably be much less so down the road.

Cherish the moment you have, learn about your family members and their histories. In doing so, you actively engage in transforming the understanding you have that’s limited by their 2016 vote and come to recognize the person’s context, her or his journey, and most importantly, how very human the individual is.

In doing so, you’ll learn a great deal more about yourself.

 

 

Bridging Differences with the Political ‘Other’

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I came to learn more about the people in this broad category whom I’d considered my oppressors….I took notice of the fact that they were people I knew and had known for a long time, who’d in fact stuck by me for years and were personal friends and even family. Because I knew them, I knew their stories, their struggles. I knew that they too had known hurt, that they too had known isolation and Otherness.

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So Tuesday happened. For some, it represents a path to a new beginning; while for others, it lurches us into a very uncertain and potentially perilous future. We each view the other side as confused and perhaps delusional at best; or extremely dangerous and therefore an imminent threat at worst. To corroborate our views, we seek out and consume media that’s specifically marketed to us as a demographic group and become further divided along cultural and ideological faults. We situate the other side as the enemy, the villain, the political ‘Other.’

A strikingly weak characteristic of our humanity is the tendency to never get beyond viewing people in terms of difference. Much of this is left over from our formative years, for it’s how we learn to order the world early in child development. After all, we need to understand the differences between boys and girls, cats and dogs, black and white so that we may make sense of the world around us.

Continuing in development, we come to understand ourselves as gendered beings who have a familial and racial-cultural identity, a community, a set of abilities, talents, gifts, beliefs; or limits therein. The world teaches us about ourselves and others, of equity and inequity.

We learn about sex and romantic attractions, and what these mean to people who may or may not hold feelings for us. We learn heartbreak, sorrow, disappointment. We experience rejection for one or more of the traits we possess, and learn what it means to feel Other because of this real or perceived difference that’s the source of our rejection. We feel left out, discounted, uncared about because of something that we have no control over, and perhaps for which we have no words. We learn fear and seek salvation from it through our own actions and those of people we perceive as more powerful than we. We look to whatever sources of change we see that can remove the fear, the uncertainty of the future for ourselves, and the people we love the most.

And we politicize our world in the process. Here’s how this happened for me:

As a White counselor and educator who grew up and in 1990 became transsexual in South Texas, my world politicized around very basic issues of safety for the gay community, which by default was my own. In preparation for my first election in which I was eligible to vote, I watched ’92 RNC Convention and witnessed the crowds of people jubilantly thrusting signs into the air that read “Family Values Forever, Gay Rights, Never.” This brought to mind the bodily sensations from only a few years earlier of being punched, kicked, and spat upon while being called a fag.

For many years after I transitioned to female, I lived in the paradox of having an identity, appearance, and the relative privileges of being a woman (which felt far safer than my life as a gay and gender-nonconforming boy had ever been) that was coupled with living memories of grief and trauma that were periodically brought home to me whenever I was outed as trans. Each election year, my resentment would be ripped open again and again as I encountered a system that refused to acknowledge my pain or that of others surrounding me, while leaders were elected and laws enacted which, if they didn’t make my life more difficult, significantly disrupted the wellbeing of people I loved. I bore a cold, deep rage against something I felt unable to change.

As I moved into new spaces personally, professionally, emotionally…I came to learn more about the people in this broad category whom I’d considered my oppressors. Social media reveals much, after all. I took notice of the fact that they were people I knew and had known for a long time, who’d in fact stuck by me for years and were personal friends and even family. Because I knew them, I knew their stories, their struggles. I knew that they too had known hurt, that they too had known isolation and Otherness. Some came from hard realities that included abuse, mental health struggles, physical limitations. Many have economic realities in the present day, such that life has been a decades-long worry of how to make ends meet. Some have children and grandchildren, and fear for their future as parents and grandparents everywhere do.

As I learned of their politics, I began taking risks and talking to them about it.

In doing so, I could not see them as so different from me. Surely, they hadn’t walked precisely in my shoes; but neither had I walked in theirs. We talked through issues, what was important to each of us. They voted their consciences and for what they truly believed was their own salvation just as I did and had always done. They were and are so very much like me, after all. Each of us has only one lived experience to inform who we are and what we should do. The powerful teachings of my own life: a loving family and friendship network, socioeconomic opportunity and mobility, access to education, mentors, spiritual teachings, the freedom to transition at a young age…all were my own. Whatever had happened in their lives was their own.

When I came to realize this, I noticed a dismantling of my own hatred, anger, fear of the political Other. Somewhere in this, I even found love.

My experience is my own, and I realize how very difficult this is because of the personal nature of politics. I do not mean to tell people that they don’t have a right to their anger and fear about the election, nor do I question the legitimacy of these emotions. Feelings are what they are. The one thing I can speak to is my own experience of going deep into my awareness of what it means to feel Other and making a choice to never intentionally do this to anyone who’s different from me.

It may be that the political decisions to be made will in fact impede my life or that of someone for whom I need to advocate. I sincerely hope none of this happens, as the truest yearning I have is for peace. I’ll be attuned as a friend, a counselor, an educator, or whatever other role in which I find myself, championing individuals and loving their human frailties that are so like my own.

I understand now that if I wish to have peace, I need to create it. At the end of the day, I have to understand that my political Other has the same wants, needs, desires that I have. In response, I choose to bring myself fully into these relationships, trusting that each of us has something of transformation to offer the Other.

What I have to offer is love and peace.