This is the first year since 2016 that I’ve put up a Christmas tree. As someone who’s always loved the holidays and enjoyed decorating my home, it feels like a meaningful and momentous return.
The year that my late husband Jamie died, I skipped Christmas altogether, opting instead to hide away at a cabin with my dog. Last year, I returned home for the holiday — and Jamie’s absence followed me. It was the first Christmas that my now-partner and I shared as a couple, and a tough one to navigate emotionally. There were a lot of tears, a lot of apologies, and a lot of patience and understanding required between the two of us.
This year feels different. It’s still bittersweet, and there are plenty of sad moments that remind me of Jamie, but I’m not as stuck in the past as I have been. Things are easier and lighter between me and my partner, and I no longer feel like I’m going through the motions, desperately trying to conjure up Christmas cheer or push aside overwhelming sadness. My excitement for the holidays this go-around is genuine, and my days are, as they say, pretty merry and bright.
It feels good. It also feels incredibly temporary.
While my fortunes have been on an upswing, it’s been a tough few weeks for people who are dear to me. One friend was laid off from her job; another lost his grandmother; and, most recently, yet another friend received back-to-back terrible news: his dad was in a serious car accident, and days later, his grandmother passed away.
I now find myself in the same position that many of my friends must have been in when my husband died. I feel heartbroken for them, and annoyingly helpless. Although I’ve written about what people can do to help a loved one in need, I’m currently struggling to choose the right things to offer my friends. I’ve sent text messages to check in, while wondering if I’m being annoying. I try to be supportive, but worry that my words ring hollow.
Most of all, I feel guilty about the fact that, at this moment, things in my life are pretty good.
It’s strange to be on the other side of things — to be content with my current status, while people I know are facing their own difficult times. Hanukkah and Christmas overlap this year, and those friends of mine will all experience their own versions of faking it through holiday traditions this month. I’ve gotten so used to being the friend in the overly sad situation that actually experiencing holiday joy this year seems somehow wrong. I find myself asking a question I’ve asked before, but in an entirely different context: What did I do to deserve this? Why should I feel happy and at peace, while my friends are struggling with unknowns and major losses?
In my first newsletter of 2019, I shared that I was feeling optimistic about the year — a departure from the deep depression I found myself in at the start of 2018. That optimism, I wrote, wasn’t because I believed that good things would happen, but because I believed in my newfound ability to adapt to change.
My positivity about 2019 isn’t because I believe that it’s time for good things to return to my life. Of course, I hope that there will be more to celebrate than mourn, but I also know I have little say over that. I’m optimistic about this year because I feel more in control of how I respond to events; I’m more comfortable with the pendulum that constantly swings between the good and the bad.
This moment I find myself in now — with a twinkling Christmas tree in our living room; a partner I love more and more each day; a series of jobs and projects I’m passionate about; a healthy family, dog, and friends; and a sweet dumb brain that’s currently calm and happy — is temporary. The moment some of my friends are in now — bombarded with worries about employment, grief, and family members’ health and well being — is also temporary.
It can be easy to forget that our difficult times will pass. Our sweet dumb brains have a tendency to convince us that things will be this hard forever, or that we will be stuck in sadness unless we somehow fix our current situation.
My friends’ hard times have reminded me, yet again, that life is fragile and unpredictable and unfair. Because of these things, it’s also wildly beautiful. Instead of fixing or pushing away the sadness, we must learn to live with it and accept it. In time, that sadness will fade, and we’ll appreciate moments like the holidays with newfound wisdom and fresh perspectives.
The key, I think, is to try and remain grateful and present through it all — to do your best to stay in the moment during the good times; to remind yourself that the bad times won’t last forever; and not to look the other way when others are going through their own difficult moments.
I might be biased, but that seems like a pretty solid recipe for the year ahead.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: I’m ~in between~ books right now, but headed to the library tomorrow to pick up a memoir I’m excited to begin. In the meantime, I’d love it if you hopped in the comments or replied to this email and let me know the favorite things you read in 2019!
I’m inspired by: The folks who are filling out the self-care workbook I created! It is surreal and exciting to see people using it in the real world, and the lovely feedback I’ve received has been incredibly encouraging. Thank you!
I'm aiming to: Shop small this Christmas — with locally made, handmade, or secondhand gifts. So far, so good, and it feels great.
“There’s no perfect thing to say in the most difficult situations, but we can support each other by opening dialogue, expressing compassion, and listening with the goal of understanding.” Here are some helpful tips on supporting a friend through a tough time.
In difficult times, I often think of Mister Rogers’s evergreen advice: To look for the helpers. I thoroughly enjoyed (and thoroughly cried through) the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and heartily recommend reading Tom Junod’s thoughts on why Rogers’s legacy endures today.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended Pema Chödrön to friends in tough situations. Edith Zimmerman makes an excellent case, too.
If you’re headed home for the holidays and feeling a bit anxious about it, Ask Polly’s Holiday Survival Guide is a great resource.
And if you’re dealing with the holiday blues, I wrote about that last year.
For your sweet dumb brain
Chances are, you know someone who might not be feeling the holiday spirit this year. Take some time to reach out to them. Send a text message or email to check in. Send a card or small package through the mail. Set up a date to talk on the phone or go out for coffee. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve connected, or how you do it. (If you want, you can even reassure your friend that there’s no pressure to reply.) The fact that you made an effort to show that you care is what really counts.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who knows what it’s like to feel helpless when a friend is going through a hard time.