Spending the holidays home alone

December 23, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Thanksgiving 2000:

A lonesome day.

For the first time I am completely alone for a holiday. With no vacation time and a girlfriend stuck working, the couch becomes my friend.

With football games on in the background I play musical relatives, the phone being passed between Mom, Dad, brother, grandparents, aunt and uncle.

There is a strange disconnect to the day, as if it's not really a holiday at all. Just a Thursday I've had to call in sick.


Faced with spending a holiday season alone, reactions can range from bored to nonchalant, depressed to creative.

Being away from family and friends is hard enough the rest of the year; during the holidays this burden can hang even heavier.

But isolation from comfortable surroundings doesn't have to leave you searching for a white flag, or praying for January.

On Thanksgiving Day 2000, dinner is a bowl of soup and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"Holidays are very sensory oriented, the smells, the scents. We're used to our grandmother's house, our mother's house," says Betty Demmler, a pastoral counselor from Maryland's Eastern Shore. "So you can choose to make that on your own, or find a new cookie recipe."

Demmler is a member of the American Counseling Association, and a past president of the Maryland Association for Counseling and Development. She says the worst thing to do when alone for a holiday is to wallow, focusing on loneliness.

That Thanksgiving Day is a little lonely, but my girlfriend and I have a plan: On the Saturday after Thanksgiving we'll cook our own feast, a mammoth 21-pound turkey with enough trimmings to feed a small army.

"I think that's a great idea," Demmler says. "We don't have to do everything in one day. We can pick one day that is our special day."

Christmas 2001:

For as long as I can remember, Christmas morning begins far earlier than any other day in the year. Giddy with anticipation at the presence of neatly-wrapped presents under a tree, I slink down the hall, plug in the multi-colored lights and stare in awe until family joins in for early-morning revelry.

"(People) are used to certain kinds of holiday traditions," Demmler says. "It builds on itself and we worry about it too much instead of viewing it as an opportunity to start a new tradition."

But this Christmas is no different for me. I'm up much earlier than is reasonable and am bouncing around the room before long.

Eventually, my wife (we married in October) joins me on the couch; we migrate to the floor where a flurry of torn paper and open boxes ensues.

Four hours from her family, six hours from mine, we make do, enjoying a relaxing afternoon with calls home. Instead of turkey and all the trimmings, we snack on chips and gorge on homemade stromboli for dinner.

Like Thanksgiving 2000, my wife and I have chosen to create our own plan without wallowing (too much) in the sadness of being away from home.

But ours is just one in an endless stream of paths to be taken. Instead of setting high expectations that can't possibly be met, Demmler suggests branching out into new experiences.

Be creative, she says. Invite friends in a similar situation over. Take part in community activities. Volunteer at a soup kitchen.

As lonely as you feel, she says, odds are good there is someone in a harder situation you can help.

"I'm not sure it fills the void," she says of volunteering, "but I want to think of it as a way to make friends with the void. You don't want it to get to the point where you're depressed about it."

So what if you do get depressed? Being away from home is hard, and can wear on someone's mind and spirit.

Besides, sometimes loneliness is born out of something other than geographic distance. Divorce and death. What then?

Well, a good cry is a place to start. Brook Lane Health Services Director of Pastoral Care Services Deryl Fleming says shedding tears is an integral part of the grieving process.

First holidays spent after a loved one dies can be particularly harsh; the worst thing to do, Fleming says, is to pretend he/she never existed.

"If it brings them to tears, that's good," he says. "You don't have to spend the whole season in tears, but denial is more dangerous than grieving."

Be creative by thinking not about what can't be done but instead of what can be done in its place, Demmler says.

Look for the little things, enjoy nature and focus on how these interludes make you feel. Try to avoid, Fleming says, falling into negative, abusive behaviors in an effort to wash away the pain of being by yourself.

And remember, being alone isn't the same as being lonesome.

"There is a difference between loneliness and solitude," Demmler says. "And solitude helps us find out how to be alone without being lonely."

Christmas 2002:

At some point Tuesday afternoon, my wife and I will enter our cold apartment, turn on our Christmas Bookshelf and sit close on the floor or on a couch.

One by one we'll exchange gifts with one another, leaving a manic, mangled trail of wrapping paper in our wake.

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