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Dwight Syms

I remember quite clearly the first Christmas after my father passed away.

He came from a very poor and uneducated family, and worked hard to become the principal of our local elementary school, and a leader in the community.  In March of 1976 he had a heart attack. It was his second, and it killed him.  I was 15 years old that spring, and the middle child of five in a suddenly single-parent family.  My mother was shocked by the sudden loss of her husband and the new reality of raising her children alone.  The loss of my father left a hole in our family, which was exceptionally pronounced the first holiday season after his death.  We each felt the loss in our own way.

More recently I worked in private practice as a couple and family therapist. I often noted two groups around the holidays.

The first group looks forward to Christmas.  They love the decorations and anticipation, and welcome the opportunities to reconnect with family and friends.  Gift buying and gift giving thrill them, lifting them from their depression and giving them focus.

And then there is another group.  The holidays remind this group of their loss, most often the death of a spouse, parent, or friend. They resent the forced family dinners and expectation of faking happiness.  Christmas, for this group, is something to weather: to get through and around, not to experience or enjoy.

For those dreading the upcoming holiday break, here’s some advice from clients who successfully managed the demands of the season.

It’s okay to take care of yourself. Some of my clients did not feel that they had the right to say no to dinner invitations.  The office party was not the highlight of the season for them.  Say no, or limit yourself.  Set a time you will attend an event and target the people you want to talk to.  By setting boundaries you protect yourself and take control of the event.

Think about what the season means to you and honour that. We often think of Christmas as including a specific set of “normal” experiences, rituals or traditions: people getting together, sharing presents, laughter and a big meal.  But keep in mind that many people do not celebrate this holiday, or have different expectations, or have had really negative experiences during previous holidays.  Ask yourself, what does this season mean to me?

And don’t set yourself up–unrealistic expectations are not your friend. This can be especially true around gift buying.  How many people are afraid to open the credit card bill in January? Set a budget and stick to it.

If it’s really bothering you, talk to a good friend or family member.  Or if you feel like it’s really impacting your enjoyment of life, talk to a professional. Call 1-844-437-3247 (HERE247) to get started. “Here 24/7” is this Region’s front door to the addictions, mental health and crisis services provided by 12 agencies across Waterloo–Wellington–Dufferin.

Dwight is the Manager of Adult Services at the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington Dufferin.