When the Holidays Are Anything BUT Happy

By Artie Van Why (avanwhy@aol.com)

If I could have it my way, there would be no December and no Christmas. Since that’s an impossibility, I would love to just seclude myself into the cozy cottage above until December has passed and Christmas is over. I could see myself taking up temporary residence there the week before Thanksgiving because that’s when this whole holiday season begins. A time of the year that I don’t enjoy anymore. Not like I use to. Not for some time now. 15 years to be exact. The 15 years since 9/11.

I know I’m not the only one who feels and thinks this way. Most survivors find November and December difficult; second only to September. And this blog post is to remind them that we all have our own reactions and feelings during this time of year and they are all valid; no matter if they are understood by others or not. They are authentically ours.

But, first I want to recognize and address the many people who aren’t associated with 9/11, but who also struggle through the holiday season as well. It can be one of the most challenging times of the year; whatever the reasons. Loneliness, missing someone or being reminded of someone no longer in your life or on this earth. Feeling hopeless or dangerously close to the end of your rope; hanging on to life by a thread.

I want to acknowledge those who are hurting. The ones who just hope to find the strength to make it through to January 1.

Not everyone wants to participate in the Thanksgiving dinner, the holiday parties, the Festival of Lights, playing with the dreidel and the eating of fried foods, Christmas Eve service or Christmas day, itself. And the endless soundtrack of Christmas songs that cruelly give the impression that if you can just make it home for the holidays everything will be warm and cozy. That concept completely ignores that, for some, being “home for the holidays” can be as unhealthy as hell.

Despite the commercials, like one showing Mom making a pot of coffee Christmas morning while the son holds a warm cup in his hand, promoting the togetherness of family. The holidays can be the loneliest time of the year for those who won’t be surrounded by family or friends. Some who might be estranged from their family or have no living relatives left. And there are those without friends who think of extending an open invitation to include them.

And my heart breaks for those who must face the holidays for the first time without the family member or friend who died this past year.

The holidays are unfortunately on that dreaded list of “firsts” people must face when they’ve lost a loved one. There is no avoiding that first Thanksgiving, first Hanukkah or first Christmas. They must be faced and it can take all the strength a person can muster to get through those days.

Even if several years have gone by since the death of someone, that doesn’t mean it ever gets easier. The absence of that person will always be felt at certain times of the year. The holidays are one of those times.

To the survivors of 9/11


That passage of time is why I started this blog post mentioning the 15 years since 9/11. This is directed to those who would think, or have the nerve to say, “don’t you think enough time has gone by?” No, not for the families that lost someone. Or the survivors who lost co-workers and/or friends that horrible morning.

But then there are the thousands of us survivors who didn’t lose someone but did lose the normality of our lives. The holiday season is difficult for us as well.

I’m reluctant to even bring up the challenge we survivors face during the holidays because I know the some of the statements that people who don’t understand would say.

At least you’re here to enjoy your family and the holidays.
You didn’t know anyone who died that day.
You’re going to bring everyone else down.

But I must remind myself and the other survivors of the similarities we share in so many ways; the difficulty of the holidays being one of them.

Every year, as November begins, so does my anxiety, because of the approaching holidays.

I can’t help but think of all those who died on 9/11; some whose deaths I witnessed.

I still deal with survivors’ guilt or remorse that I’m here and alive and able to be with family. There is a sorrow in my heart that prevents me from being able to be attentive and “in the moment” as the turkey is carved, or gifts are unwrapped or carols are sung.

The hardest thing to even attempt to convey to people is that, as 9/11 survivors, we deal daily with the loss of the people we were before the first tower was hit. We now view all of life differently; including the holiday season.

The trauma of what we witnessed devastated us, shattering our lives. Like myself, survivors are still trying to put the broken shards of who we once were back together; including that part that enjoyed the holidays. So, we stay silent for the most part on those days.

We might go to the office party or take part in lighting the menorah, or the hanging of the ornaments and tinsel. And we’ll listen to the prayers of thanksgiving recited at church, the synagogue or dinner table and not feel an ounce of anything to be thankful for. There is sadness in place of joy. Anxiety instead of good cheer.

If you know someone who is a survivor of 9/11, know we will put on a happy face and go through the motions of each family’s traditions. We may appear a little distance or distracted but please try to remember that we’re doing our best.

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