Holiday Time, Family Time. Happy Time?

How is everyone doing now that the holiday season is upon us?

There are various ways the upcoming holidays are impacting each of you. Some may be spending it away from family by choice or circumstance, and some may be enthusiastically preparing to celebrate and gather with family and friends, while others are dreading it, thinking of ways to avoid it, wishing it would just go away.

No matter what, we all have holiday memories, some more pleasant than others, and experiences filled with traditions that we can’t wait to pass on or that we hope never to repeat.

Family Gatherings

Whether or not we are looking forward to it, getting together with family for the holidays automatically throws us into old familiar roles and family dynamics.

Some of us are more aware than others that this is happening and can manage it somewhat, while others are blindsided every time, or they know it’s coming and prepare for the worst, knowing there’s no way to stop it.

Others might rather enjoy it because it works for them; it’s comfortable and still gets the results they like and are used to. Your siblings may disagree and feel like, ‘here we go again.’

It can be so annoying to become the little brother again or the one everyone picks on or blames for everything. Of course, this becomes even more complicated when spouses and children are brought into the mix. Now watch the family dynamics change!

The holidays can be challenging. They can trigger old memories, provoke painful emotions that are often difficult or impossible to manage, and sometimes lead to crises.

This is particularly true for individuals and families who are unstable, volatile, in chaos, arguing, separated, or grieving.

Families struggling and suffering with addiction, abuse and violence, divorce, or death are particularly stricken and impacted around the holidays.

Turmoil and Uncertainty

Addiction is a powerful disease that takes complete control over a person’s life and consequently grossly impacts the lives of the people close to them: their spouse, children, parents, or friends. The destruction is widespread.

Problems seem to become exacerbated around the holidays; an actively using addict may increase their alcohol/drug use, and an addict in recovery may be at high risk for relapsing.

In situations of family violence, the abuse and violence tend to escalate during the holidays, creating a tense, sometimes dangerous family environment.

The holiday celebration is ruined, and the family is in chaos and crisis once again. The abuse cycle is often followed by profuse apologies, his pleading for forgiveness, and his wife struggling to give him another opportunity or decide whether she has had enough.

In these cases, the holidays represent turmoil and uncertainty and are anything but happy. Not only is the immediate family (spouse and children) greatly affected, but so is the extended family (in-laws) and family of origin (parents and siblings).

They must decide to go ahead with the gathering or avoid you at all costs. Should they just exclude you but include your spouse and children? Should they hope everything will calm down and be alright? Should they pretend like nothing happened? Is there something they can do? If so, what? What limits are they going to set?

Divorce, especially in the first year or two, is challenging because everyone struggles to adapt to new situations, which demand compromise and flexibility. The original family unit is lost.

The children, no matter how old or young, are forced to accept that things are different. They usually have to split their time between their parents and their respective extended families. One thing is for sure; it will never be the same.

Some children adapt, and some rebel. Some struggle to get to know and accept their parent’s new partner and possible step-siblings. There is usually a great deal of confusion, resentment, not feeling considered or important, and possibly some rejection and abandonment.

My girlfriend divorced six months ago (after 18 years with her second husband), and shortly after, and very unexpectedly, she fell in love with an old friend. Much to her surprise, she is in a relationship with him and planning the holidays to include him and his young adult sons.

Her young adult daughter (23) is having a terrible time with this. She not only has to travel home for the holidays, she already spent her childhood (since age 4) dividing her time between her mom and dad’s houses. She grew up with a loving stepfather who she now has to ‘squeeze in’ and split her time three ways. She is angry and wants no part of her mother’s new relationship.

When we suffer a loss (death), the holidays are filled with powerful memories. We feel the emptiness all over again; it becomes apparent that the person is no longer with us. We grieve again.

Our feelings may return or become stronger and more difficult to manage. We may feel extremely sad and struggle to enjoy the holidays, or we may believe that we shouldn’t be joyful or celebrating without that person in our lives. The circumstances of their death usually trigger certain emotions that we relive, such as anger and frustration at the disease that killed them and the medicine that didn’t save them, or the person who caused the tragic accident, or at them for their refusal to stop drinking or drugging or their refusal to change bad habits to improve a chronic health condition.

We may feel powerless that we couldn’t save them, or maybe guilty because we didn’t see them often enough or say “I love you” often enough.

Some of you may be suffering an impending loss. You may be letting go of a loved one now. Your holidays are certainly not the same, and you know you will never be the same again either.

The person who is dying also knows that this is their last holiday or large family gathering. They know they will never have any of this again and can only be grateful for the times they did share with family and friends. They know they are leaving everyone behind.

They are keenly aware of all their children or grandchildren’s upcoming events they will never attend. This holiday probably means more to them than ever before. Everything, including time, has become so precious.

I wish you all peace and tranquility, joy and laughter, and may you be surrounded by love from family and friends. Happy Holidays!


  • Giselle Belanger

    Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW (psychotherapist); available for appointments in person, by phone, or by Skype webcam. Contact info: Mex cell: (322) 138-9552 or US cell: (312) 914-5203.

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