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The Straight Dope About the Holidays: What to Expect, How to Make It to the New Year

Holidays are stressful in general. And so is divorce. Combining them can be the final straw that pushes some people into depression. If this is your holiday experience, get the support you need to make it through but don't be too alarmed. It's par for the course and next year's holiday season will be much easier.
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I'm the kind of person who would rather hear it straight than have it sugar coated. For example, before my first colonoscopy, I asked friends to give me an uncensored account. They described the dreaded 24-hour prep in graphic detail, assuring me the procedure itself was no big deal in comparison. It turned out to be just as they'd described and I was glad I knew what to expect.

In the same spirit of candor -- and on the subject of gut-wrenching experiences -- let's talk about the holidays and what they're really like for the newly separated or divorced.

You'll find articles with cheerful pep talks and tips to help you through your first holiday season (and some of them actually do help). But truthfully, no amount of advice or planning will make the holidays easy. If divorce is like one long colonoscopy, the first holiday season is the equivalent of the last 4 hours of the prep -- you're just hanging in there to get through it.

Of course this is a generality and you may be one of the lucky ones who have an easier time. My advice for surviving the holidays, in any case, is to be mentally and emotionally prepared, know what it might look like, and have a plan.

As for the details, here is what I'd tell any friend who asked me for the straight dope.

First the Bad News

Unless your holidays while married were no fun at all, you will likely feel sad -- maybe even depressed -- during your first holiday season apart, even if you wanted the divorce. Here's why:

• A lot is going on the first year that interferes with your enjoyment of the holidays. Money is tight; everyone is adjusting to new routines and households; there's the holiday custody schedule to work out which can result in arguments; each parent is missing the kids when they're with the other parent.

• Holiday traditions are big reminders of the past. Pulling out the holiday boxes and decorating the tree, lighting the Hanukkah candles, making the traditional turkey dinner or potato latkes -- whatever it is, it can be painful because it's a memory that hasn't yet been replaced with a new one. In a few years, you'll have new memories and traditions to sustain you, but the first year is the hardest.

• Because of the way the human mind works, most people remember holidays with a rosy glow and don't remember the less-than-desirable aspects. Holidays in reality are a mixed bag, but when we're feeling nostalgic, we think about only the Hallmark moments and feel our losses more intently.

• Holidays are stressful in general. And so is divorce. Combining them can be the final straw that pushes some people into depression.

If this is your holiday experience, get the support you need to make it through but don't be too alarmed. It's par for the course and next year's holiday season will be much easier.

And Now the Good News

Over the holidays, your kids will likely do just fine as long as you can find a way to manage your grief privately, put on a good face, and stay out of conflict with your ex (at least when your kids are around). It's certainly not easy to do all this when you're struggling inside, but if you can rise to the occasion, they'll have a nice holiday and your reward will be a "Get out of Guilt Free" card and the joy of seeing your children happy.

The holidays will be easiest for young kids because they live in the moment. Their sadness about the divorce won't dim their excitement for the holidays.

Elementary school-age kids can be a bit trickier. They often miss the parent who isn't there and it feels strange for them to spend holidays apart as a family. Listen, empathize and talk about it, and also know that they will take their cues from you. If you carry on with the usual child-centered holiday events and traditions, you'll be pleasantly surprised by their ability to have a good time and enjoy the holidays in spite of the emotions they are processing.

Tweens and Teens will definitely remember past holidays as a family and feel the loss -- particularly on the actual holiday when everything is different from how it used to be. But they are also more self-absorbed and more wrapped up in their friends than younger kids, which plays in your favor. As long as you keep yourself level around them and don't use them as a confidant for your own grief process, they usually won't pick up on how sad you are and will get into the spirit of the holidays with friends and family. My parents divorced when my siblings and I were tweens/teens. Many years later, we learned that our parents had both really struggled through that first holiday season, yet none of us had picked up on it and we'd actually had a relatively good time. We had a good laugh, realizing how self-absorbed we'd been.

We also felt tremendous gratitude when we were old enough to realize the effort our parents made each year to keep the holidays nice for us. They "sucked it up for the kids," as I wrote about in a prior post. The point of that article is not that you have to do holidays together post-divorce as my parents did, but that your children's holidays (and family events) can continue to be happy times in spite of the life changes that come from divorce. It just takes a lot of love, some maturity, and a bit of good acting -- particularly that first holiday season.

And Finally, Plans to Get You Through the Season

1. If you're going to be on your own for a holiday (for example, your ex gets the kids for Thanksgiving), this is the time to call on your closest friends or family to see if you can spend the holiday with them. It's not a good idea to sit home alone. They'll understand what you're going through and you can be completely yourself around them.

2. If you're going to be alone for several days over the holiday break (for example, your kids will be spending the week after Christmas with your ex, or you're off work and will have more time than usual), line up things to do with your free time. Do whatever makes you feel good - eat out, read a good book, go to a movie with a friend, get a pedicure, exercise, attend a sports event, host a poker night with the guys, go skiing. One person I know actually spent her week organizing and cleaning out closets, which she found very cathartic.

3. Make arrangements to talk on the phone with a close friend at least every other day so you can share your emotional ups and downs with someone. If you see a therapist, book a few appointments.

4. This last one is everyone's least favorite, but actually the most important: Set aside some private time over the holidays to grieve - to actually sit with your sadness and let it come up. You may find it helpful to write in a journal, read a book on loss and recovery, meditate, pray, whatever feels right for you. Clients have told me that the dark night of the soul they experienced during that first holiday season was, in retrospect, when they worked through some key layers of grief. Somehow the intense grieving cleared the way for the New Year, making it possible for them to roll into January with more optimism and hope. You won't find this tip in most holiday lists because it isn't fun or catchy, but it will make a difference in what you get out of this holiday season, when it really comes down to it.

Good luck, and please share in the comments anything that has worked for you or other thoughts.

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