How To Survive the Holidays After Your Family Has Survived a Trauma

Holidays are meant to be a time of celebration, connection and joy, and this time of year, it feels like this message is everywhere, from commercials to jingles to holiday cards – a non-stop barrage that everything is jolly, and merry, and bright. For some families, this is absolutely the case; holidays are anticipated and enjoyed with excitement. But often, for families who have survived a loss or a trauma, the holidays are endured instead of celebrated, serving as a spotlight on just how difficult things are right now. Holidays can become a source of stress rather than joy and isolation rather than connection.

So what do we do when the holidays bring up grief or pain or loss? It may never feel completely easy, but we hope these steps can help:

Remember, you and your family are not alone

Pain and loss never feel quite as sharp or close as when you’re experiencing them in the midst of celebration – kind of like how the worst sort of loneliness is feeling lonely in a crowd. You look around and see so many “perfect” families and lives, all looking their best for the holiday season, and get drawn into the belief you’re the only one struggling or falling apart. When you start to believe you or your child or your family are the only ones struggling, the holidays can begin to feel unbearable.

So what’s the solution? The answer is pretty simple: talk about it. And don’t just gloss over the surface; talk about the gritty, flat-on-the-floor, feel-like-you-can’t-breathe moments with the people you trust. Open up a conversation in your family about both the good and the bad, giving a safe space for everyone to talk about how they’re really feeling – and respond with validation and compassion to those who share. Remind yourself it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to let others know you’re not okay too. Remember, vulnerability has a ripple effect, and by taking off your mask, you might just be giving somebody else the courage they need to take off their mask too.

Let go of “should’s”

Holidays and celebrations are jam-packed with expectations of how they should go and how you should feel – there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect and to feel celebratory, even when there’s not a lot going worth celebrating. But fixating on how you should feel, what you should be doing, or how you should be handling things is a surefire way to set yourself up to fail. Anytime you hear yourself saying “I should” or “I shouldn’t,” chances are you’re falling into this trap.

We tend to forget just how powerful our words can be – they can build us up or they can break us down. Try to use more gentle language with yourself and others. Avoid self-judgment or criticism. Be kinder to yourself. Focus on the parts of the holidays that matter most to you and give yourself permission to let go of the rest.

Instead of piling on more expectations, take the pressure off – commit to cutting yourself some slack this holiday season. When there’s no pressure to have everything go perfectly, there’s more room to enjoy things as they already are.

Give yourself a break

Inevitably, sometime over the holiday, you will start to feel overwhelmed and stressed – it happens to all of us. When this happens, consider it your cue to stop the action, take a breather, and give yourself a break. Excuse yourself quietly or invite the whole family to take a break with you – chances are if you’re feeling overwhelmed, they are too. Go for a walk outside and enjoy how the brisk air feels on your face. Build a snowman, start a snowball fight, sip hot chocolate and hold a contest to see who can fit the most marshmallows in their cup. Take a nap. Fold some laundry or do the dishes. Escape in a book or watch a funny show on Netflix. Change into your comfiest clothes or read the kids bedtime stories. Put on some music that makes you smile. Whatever it is, find something that brings you joy and lets you press pause while you recharge.

Practice mindfulness

One of the most difficult aspects of adjustment after a family has survived a trauma is remembering the before and after. The ‘how it used to be’ can make it that much more difficult to accept and cope with how it is now. This is never more true than during the holiday season. The very nature of holidays is rooted in the past, with so many traditions and rituals all set to trigger a minefield of memories. You physically might be sitting at the dining room table or opening presents under the tree, but your mind is a million miles back in the past, bringing back a million thoughts and emotions along with it. When the past and the present collide you can feel stuck and overwhelmed, unable to fully experience or enjoy the moment.

This is where the concept of mindfulness comes in. At its simplest, mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment with your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Where trauma pulls you backwards, mindfulness frees you to move forward. Any time you notice your mind wandering back to the past, acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that are there and choose to gently return your attention to the present. When you feel yourself getting triggered or overwhelmed, take a deep breath and look around – what can you connect to in the present? What can you choose to engage with that is calming or joyful? Fully take in sights and sounds and smells that are enjoyable and grounding for you. Focus on something that sparks gratitude. Find what works for you. If you notice your child disengaging or shutting down, encourage them to practice this with you.

When it comes to mindfulness during the holiday season, it’s key to remember that the difficult or painful doesn’t cancel out the good – allow yourself to hold both at the same time. You might be surprised at just how much joy there is to be found when you choose to look for it.

Create a new tradition

Treat this holiday season as your blank slate and start a new tradition with your family. Hold a gingerbread house-making contest. Bake cookies to hand out in the neighborhood. Sing in a choir or go caroling. Participate in a toy drive. Volunteer to serve at a shelter or food bank. Plan for an annual movie marathon day. Whatever it might be, find something that feels meaningful and lets you tap into connection and gratitude and joy. Reclaim and rewrite your family’s holiday narrative. Old traditions can carry with them a whole host of charged emotions and memories. New traditions can help you tap into hope and give you and your family something to look forward to.