Wood's Homes Blog

Part one: Managing the hard parts of the holidays

December 14, 2019
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
Part one: Managing the hard parts of the holidays

When Holidays Aren’t Happy: How to Manage the Hard parts

Although these posts use examples from the upcoming Christian holiday of Christmas, the same ideas can be applied to any holiday you celebrate.  All holidays have certain things in common - celebration, tradition, food and family.  Feel free to substitute and adapt whatever meets your family’s needs!

Part One: When Life isn’t What it Was; Managing Grief and Loss and Transition

Years ago, when I was working in a shelter for abused women and children, I often volunteered to work what was called the 'Santa Shift' so that my colleagues could be home with their families on Christmas Eve. I was young and naïve, and had no idea that Christmas Eve is a difficult time for so many.  The crisis line we operated was busy with people struggling to get through what can be a very difficult season if you are struggling with depression, social isolation, divorce, unemployment or family violence.

A few years ago, the Ontario Association of Interval Houses (OAITH) attempted to bring home the message that for some families, the risk of violence increases with extended periods of time spent together at home. At the time, OAITH sponsored a Christmas Window that contained a very different type of family interaction. Click here. Powerful and disturbing, it made clear that for those of us working in this sector, domestic violence does not take holidays. 

And that’s what I learned that first night on the Santa Shift, when I struggled to manage the phone lines and do an emergency intake after a woman was forced to call 911 during a violent episode with her spouse.  She was brought to the shelter in a police cruiser, arriving tear-stained and shaken with two young boys still in their pyjamas. The oldest boy was clearly distraught while the youngest one simply pressed up against his mother and sucked his thumb. He kept urging his mother to take them back home, and as we were gently explaining that it wasn’t safe for them to do that right now, he blurted out what the adults in the room had failed to consider: “Santa will never find us now,” he wailed.

I assured him that I had worked Christmas Eve for many years and that Santa always made an appearance. I asked him if he would help put out the milk and cookies, and he nodded quickly as he swallowed his next sob. We went into the kitchen and as we got everything ready, I asked him what he had asked for; hoping beyond hope that the donation room in the basement would have at least one of those items.  It’s pretty hard to get it right when you don’t have any lead-up time. I don’t remember now the details of the list, I just know how hard I tried to make up for it that night and that in the morning just before my shift ended, I was rewarded by him and his brother bounding down the stairs, eyes shining with excitement, and how their faces lit up at all the gifts they hadn’t even asked for.  And it was at that moment that I had my very own Grinch-like awakening,

“Christmas it seems, doesn’t come from a store.”


So with that in mind, I have a few tips for getting through this season, even if you are in a different place in your life or there is someone important who won’t be at the family table this year:

  1. Talk about what needs to be talked about. Who isn’t with us this year?  Why aren’t we at home right now? How can we make sense of this as a family so that we don’t have to try so hard to pretend it’s not happening? Recognizing the loss will actually help you not to be paralysed by it.
  2. Don’t cancel the holidays. Sometimes it seems too painful to try to go through the motions of celebration when someone important is missing.  But if your strength lies in your support networks, the holidays are full of opportunities to slow down and connect with those who might offer the perfect shoulder to lean/cry on.
  3. Santa can still come, just perhaps in a different form. As my story illustrates above, it’s the magic that children are really relying on, not necessarily the gifts themselves. We all want to believe in something bigger and better than ourselves.   
  4. Take a holiday hiatus. I remember a family struggling to face the first holiday after their mother had died on Christmas Day the year before.  They just weren’t ready to manage the gaping hole that was still in their hearts and who could blame them? Together, they chose to go on a family vacation to somewhere out of the ordinary and where they wouldn’t be faced with the reminders of Christmas. They just wanted a chance to rest and heal after a very difficult year. 
  5. Honour meaningful traditions. If things will never be the same for some reason (like Grandpa always carved the turkey), it’s time to start new traditions. Who would Grandpa want to have passed his mad turkey carving skills on to?  Maybe everyone can have a try and take the opportunity to remember. It can be tearful while still be healing.
  6. Don’t carry the load alone. Talk to someone. Family and friends can help, but sometimes you need that neutral professional (check out the homepage of this site for the many ways we can help).