For seven years every time the phone rang on Christmas day my family wondered if it was him. There was a momentary silence as eyes darted around the room to see who would answer. Is this the moment he reaches out to us? Is he coming back? Eventually one of us would pick up the phone and hear the voice of another relative or friend, but not the one we missed so much.
My oldest brother disappeared from my family's life and didn't talk to any of us for seven years. Every day during that time period hurt, but it was always worse around the holidays. My brother was one of my best friends when he left. He was absent from my life during some of my most difficult times. I dreamed about being able to turn to him for advice.
At the time he was gone, I was the only person I knew who had a situation like this. Knowing he was alive and choosing not to talk to me was devastating, but it also gave me hope. As I got older I realized this was really common for a lot of people.
The lessons I learned during those seven years have helped make these holidays more joyful.
1. Celebrate the people you have: Unfortunately, losing a family member to distraction, distance and even death is too common. Divorce, breakups and even the loss of a pet can make you feel so lonely. Obviously it can be hard to make up for that loss, but it's helpful to appreciate and spend time with the person, people and companions you do have in your life. Coming together can provide the comfort and closeness that you need. When that's not possible pick up a phone, or Skype or do what you can to hear their voice.
2. Be aware of triggers: We're often home for the holidays or in the places where we spent the most time with the people we miss. There are so many possible triggers. Songs about missing people, a sentence on a Christmas card or even seeing a moment my brother would have loved could trigger instant tears for me. It's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to be triggered, but being aware of what hurts will at least prepare you to deal with it and hopefully find a good way to cope.
3. Be careful with how you cope: In a season of wanting and asking, it's easy to miss what we truly wish for. Sometimes the people we miss aren't coming back. During the time while my brother was gone, Christmas morning hangovers became all too common for me. The vulnerability of missing my brother drew me to alcohol in a much more dangerous way. One drink wasn't good enough to kill the pain. It took a while for me to realize that I shouldn't be drinking or hurting myself more on the holidays. Being present, exercising or going to a movie were much better options.
4. Don't be embarrassed to feel: If you've had a rough year or are still missing a loved one, years after they're gone, it's better to be honest during the holidays than it is to bottle it up. Cry, tell stories, laugh at the good times, do what you need to in order to release your feelings. The people closest to you know what you've gone through. Getting your emotions out can help you. It also helps to keep your favorite memories fresh of the people you love and miss.
5. Connect yourself to something bigger than you: Hangout with your friends. Volunteer for a day. Go to church, a museum or park. Go on vacation. There are millions of people in this world experiencing some of the same feelings of loss. Spending time doing something that links you to a larger force provides perspective and a much-needed distraction from your situation.
I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity for my brother to return to our family. It took a while, but we were able to work through our differences and rebuild a friendship. It's still rare for my whole family to be in the same place on the holidays. This time of year can bring out the best and worst in all of us. Take comfort in knowing you're not alone and try to enjoy the smaller moments that are meaningful to you.