Taking Things Too Personally Poses Coping Problems

By Therapist Michael Church, PhD

Do you take things personally? If you make a point at a meeting, and someone disagrees with you, do you internalize your dismay and spend the next several hours – and most of the night – ruminating over what that person said at the meeting? The problem with taking things too personally is that you are then confronted with jealousy, anger, suspicion, and other upsetting emotions. For many people, and in certain situations, these emotions can produce arguments like neighbor disputes and conflict with work colleagues, plus more serious consequences like rage, hate crimes, and violent domestic behavior.

It is important to remember that these are largely avoidable emotional outcomes if you work at being more objective, less impulsive, more patient with others, and better able to operate in problem-solving mode rather than emotion-based mode. For instance, if you make a point at a meeting, and someone strongly disagrees with you, if you respond in emotion-based mode – “You know, Joe, if you weren’t always so stubborn and oppositional, we could get a lot more done around here!” – communication will likely deteriorate quickly. If, on the other hand, you respond in problem-solving mode – “I hear your point, Joe, but I think we’re approaching the issue from different perspectives. Let’s see if we can get on the same page.” – you are more likely to stimulate productive cooperation.

Another danger from taking things personally is that you are likely to evaluate your own and others’ feelings and thoughts as good or bad. Thoughts and feelings, however, are not good or bad but, for the most part, are natural reflections of personality, moods, and experiences. They are normal both for you and for the other person. But, as soon as you go into extremist good or bad thinking, you enter a world of zero-sum subjective evaluation. You want to win and the other guy must lose, so the social interaction becomes a personal war from your perspective. That’s not a psychologically healthy way to interact with others because it prevents understanding, cooperation, and empathy.

Another coping danger from taking things personally is that you are more likely to take responsibility for what other people choose to do. This is particularly dangerous for parents. How many parents spend thousands of dollars for lawyers and fines because their adult child broke a law? How many let the kid come back home, and watch them sleep on the couch, doing little to get a job or help with chores? How many parents fall into this enabling trap because they feel guilty that their adult child is making bad choices? How many see their adult kid’s mistakes and – laden with guilt – think, “I should have raised this kid better. I was a poor parent.” This is faulty thinking. No parent does everything right, but the past is gone; your adult child is making their own choices in their present world. As long as you enable their self-sabotaging choices in the present, you are not helping them and you are certainly not helping yourself. Your coping task is not to ruminate over the past, but to decide what options are available to you right now. And in most circumstances like this one, the wisest choice is to force current reality on your “child,” and follow through with firm and even harsh action. You are not responsible for everything others do. Accountability is great, but keep it in perspective. Personal accountability is essential to good coping, but best done when the actions are under your control.

Our coping lesson is simple: Taking what others’ say too personally will throw you into a coping minefield. It will threaten your self-validity, foster self-sabotaging actions and thinking, and bring you all sorts of troublesome encounters.

Watch Out for the Mental Illness Trap

The term “mental illness” is thrown around quite a bit these days. Whenever a mass shooting occurs in public, many proclaim the need to confront the problem of mental illness in society. Whenever a teenager threatens suicide, or overdoses on drugs, or succumbs to the intoxicating message of a cult leader, we hear again the warnings about widespread mental illness in society.

The message conveyed by the words, “mental illness,” has unfortunate collateral consequences: First, it wrongly casts a wide net over large segments of the population, and scares a lot of people. Many mistakenly see this net as fitting folks from the mass shooter motivated by some vast delusional system, to the confused teenager struggling to find a self-identity. Second, the phrase ignores the fact that most mentally ill people do not go around shooting others, and a lot of those who shoot others are not mentally ill. Third, the phrase does not suggest how to confront the crisis. For instance, some blame the schools for indoctrinating children into an unstable “woke” culture, but these critics ignore the role of “helicopter” parents who refuse to allow their children to learn what it means to fail, and how to deal rationally with that failure. Fourth, the phrase is so general and ill-defined that it allows people to use it to demonize and reject those who are different or troublesome.

Just what are the professional criteria of mental illness? Some of the more prominent behavioral criteria include fundamental weaknesses and inabilities in several areas of behavior: separating reality from desires; relating to others rationally; understanding and empathizing with others’ distress and needs; discarding arrogant thinking about self in favor of humility; facing challenges without reliance on others; accepting personal accountability. If you are mentally ill, you will show deficiencies – consistently and over a period of time – in many of these areas. But note that the focus in this list is on behaviors that a troubled person, with professional help, can possibly work on, not on their emotions and feelings that are a normal part of living.

Most emotionally distressed people who feel they are mentally ill are probably not. Unfortunately, those who are troubled do not receive the message emphasizing actions, because that is not the focus of society when talking about mental illness. Rather, people – especially the young ones – hear the false message from a variety of media platforms, that if they experience emotions like shame, anxiety, sadness, confusion, frustration, ambivalence, and fear, then they are mentally ill – not normal. This is a false and dangerous message that can trigger deeper despair, depression, and thoughts of suicide, especially in those who already feel rejected, abandoned, confused, and alone. The irony is, the experience of those emotions is quite normal and a part of living. The key to coping with them is to acquire actions that help you deal with them in rational and confident ways. But, again, too many people in our society – especially adolescents and young adults – have been protected from adversity by parents and other adults, with the unfortunate consequence being that they never learn how to deal with negative experiences and emotions. That inability makes them susceptible to the misleading statements about mental illness, beginning in adolescence and extending well into adulthood.

So, to the extent that “mental illness” presents a problem in society, how should we handle it? What should we be telling people? First, we must establish a proper alternative context for the phrase. Instead of “mental illness,” let’s talk about helping people make wise choices about their behavior when it comes to coping with stress. Second, let’s help people understand that it is not abnormal to feel anxious, ashamed, or sad, and that they need to try and change their inappropriate behavior in coping with these emotions. Third, let’s convince people that they can learn to depend on themselves rather than blindly following someone who would encourage them to cope by antagonizing and hating others. Finally, as an alternative to worrying about feelings and emotions and criticizing themselves for holding those feelings and emotions, let’s help people see the importance of accepting reality, of being accountable for their actions, of striving for some humility in their interactions with others, of working toward empathy and understanding of others, and of taking action to serve others in need. If you’re worried about whether your distressing emotions make you “abnormal” or having an “illness,” modify your perspective to a focus not on emotions but on changing your behavior for the betterment of yourself and those around you.

Take Your Values to Your Workplace

Many entries in this blog point out the importance of connecting personal values to coping actions. Of course, this principle raises the question: “How do I know if my values are appropriate for effective coping?” That’s a valid question. After all, what if someone values dishonesty as useful; or manipulation of others; or arrogance; or being guided by – as someone once said – “alternative facts”? How are we to evaluate our values as useful in coping with stress? It’s actually pretty straightforward. Just ask yourself, “Do my values motivate me to focus on reality instead of speculation? Do they encourage me to be accountable in my actions and humble in my successes? Do they inspire me to develop empathy for others?” If you answer “Yes,” your values are appropriate for good coping.

Raymond is a college professor. His course in Themes in America History is among the most popular at the university. What’s his secret? “Well,” says Raymond, “I have always felt that this course is a reflection of some of my values, and students like that.” When asked to list those values, he wrote, “Respect for students; Awareness and appreciation of diversity; Consistency and clarity in presenting ideas; Expose students to differing perspectives, but never indoctrinate them into accepting one view as best.” He paused and said, “I could add more, I’m sure, but this gives you an idea of my standards as a professor.”

“So, you believe those values are reflected in how you teach the course?”

“Absolutely. I believe in this course and the historical themes I try to develop. I hope the students learn how the themes express American democracy. I think they respect the fact that I don’t advocate any particular point of view. I respect each student’s perspective, and in class discussion I try to validate their perspectives by showing them how their views would fit in the context of each course theme. I think this gives them a sense of ownership of the class material.”

“Do you think reflecting your values in the course is at least partially responsible for the popularity of the course?”

“I suppose so, although I don’t measure success by how many kids sign up for it. I encourage students to express their opinions. Once they learn that I respect their opinions and am not interested in indoctrinating them into a particular point of view, they really open up. I present information, pose what I hope are questions that trigger critical thinking, and the result is usually exciting and productive discussions. When I point out to students how their divergent perspectives bring teacher and learners together as problem solvers, I think they see the value of mutual respect when sharing different opinions. That makes it all fun. Education, you know, should be challenging, but it should also be fun. I have fun, and I think it’s contagious.”

Link your values to your workplace. The consequences should be quite rewarding.

Coping Checklist — With a Twist

How are you coping with your stressors these days? A question like that often brings answers like: “I’m too anxious about [a coming event].” “I yelled at a friend the other day and now I’m feeling guilty.” “My boss is driving me crazy. Every time I have a new idea, he shoots it down. It’s so frustrating.” “I’m afraid some of my so-called friends are trying to stab me in the back.”

Notice how all these responses refer to some emotion: anxiety, guilt, frustration, fear.  Let’s face it, those who have trouble coping with stress spend too much time focusing on their emotions that occur in response to stress. “I’m so anxious! I’m going to lose control!” Well, take a deep breath and focus on this reality: stress – and the emotions it produces – is a normal, unavoidable aspect of life. Feeling stressed does not make you unstable or inferior to others, nor does experiencing emotions like fear, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, and anxiety make you abnormal.

Do you feel threatened by your emotions? Do you think good mental health means keeping troublesome emotions in check, at a low level, and seldom having to deal with them? The truth is, feeling emotions is completely natural, and working to deny or eliminate them is counterproductive. Instead, you need to confront the situations and events that bring on the emotions, and take realistic action to deal with those events. You must become an active action-taker in your life, not a passive reactor. The goal is to bring purpose and satisfaction to your life, not by suppressing your natural emotions, but by assessing your behavior choices, and developing action plans.

Here are some introspective questions designed to help you focus on you as an actor. Note that none of them refer to emotions. These questions might help you look at your coping efforts with a broader perspective than just worrying about your emotions.

SELF

Do you feel threatened by events outside your control? Can you focus on actions more under your control?

How reliable is your memory?… your judgment?… your reasoning?… your perception of events? Can you develop these abilities to help you use critical thinking to distinguish reality from fantasy?

What to Look for: The futility of trying to control events and others beyond your control is generally well-known. Still, you may get careless and seek an easy way to lower your stress by trying to expand your control inappropriately. A periodic self-check can help you avoid the control trap, and save you a lot of emotional turmoil.

Assessment of your cognitive skills can be difficult. Fact-checking your beliefs with a variety of other people and reliable media sources can help you avoid falling prey to things like false conspiracy theories and misleading information from those who would try to make you doubt your reality.

SOCIAL

Does attachment to others intimidate you? Can you reach out to trusted others to help you realistically assess motives of others through honest conversation?

Is your communication with others consistent, logical, and coherent? Can you learn how to speak softly and slowly, with clarity and sincerity?

Do you feel compassion and understanding for others who say they are in distress? Can you learn to ask yourself, “How would I feel in their situation? How would I want others to treat me?”

What to Look for: Assess your attitudes and behavior for telltale signs of poor coping: not trusting others; being unable to experience empathy for others; generally having your words and actions misunderstood by others.

REALITY

Are you resistant to change? Can you be flexible when faced with changing coping demands? Are you willing to experiment with new courses of action? Can you accept the consequences of your actions, and modify them if necessary?

Do you consider yourself the center of it all, and indulge yourself in self-absorption? Do you engage in activities focused on serving others?

What to look for: Effectively coping with stress requires flexibility. It’s kind of ironic because people who have difficulty in dealing with conflict and stress usually adopt a strategy of keeping things orderly, methodical, systematic, and predictable. Change is threatening because flexibility means organization must give way to some frustration and turmoil. The way out of the threat is to serve others more often. The focus must move away from self-needs to other-needs. Put the latter in your life and many difficult coping puzzle pieces will fall into place.

Reminders for the New Year

Happy New Year! Here are 10 things to remember about coping with stress:

  1. Coping problems involve avoidance. Ask yourself, “What am I avoiding, and why?”
  2. Allow happiness to emerge in your life by acting in ways that bring you satisfaction.
  3. Coping well does not always mean living up to others’ expectations.
  4. When troubled in a relationship, ask yourself: “Who do I feel I have to be in this relationship to make it work? Do I like myself in this role? Is it me?”
  5. Accept your thoughts and feelings for what they are – normal thoughts and feelings.
  6. Your emotions are not the problem; inappropriate actions servicing the emotions are the problem.
  7. Your actions must be consistent with the conscience, values, and standards that guide you and allow you to venture outside of yourself. The actions are yours; the consequences are yours.
  8. Focus on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions are fantasy. 
  9. Stop having personal pity parties. You have no right to have the corners of your world padded for you.
  10. Success is easy. You must also learn to fail.

Beware the New Year’s Resolutions

            I (CB) first posted this entry on December 26, 2016.

            “My New Year’s resolution is going to be the same one I made a year ago: find a new job. This time I’m serious. Plus, the economy is good and employers are looking for workers; it’s a workers’ market. Wages are also up so I should be able to expect more pay in the new job. What do I need to do to be successful?”

            These words, written to a newspaper columnist who specializes in advice for job seekers, illustrate how not to cope in general with a challenge, and why, specifically, New Year’s resolutions usually fail. Note the excuse for last year’s failure: He wasn’t serious last year, but, “This time I’m serious.” This excuse suggests he has not truly accepted the reality of his situation. If he did, he would not need to say he’s serious.

Also, note how the writer focuses on external factors like the economy and having no advisor to explain his earlier failure, rather than focus on what he may have done wrong. In other words, he has not taken accountability for his situation. We’ll never know, of course, but like last year he is unlikely to be successful this year. He’s got a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and he believes a columnist can take care of him. In other words, he has not worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

            When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct your errors, not focusing on external factors. The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on this week in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

            New Year’s resolutions illustrate poor coping techniques, which is why they generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

            Second, many folks use overly general resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” In this case, you’re putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

            Third, resolutions are usually unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“Be able to run a marathon by Spring”; “Lose 30 lbs. by February,”) and you also believe that you’re reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

            To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

            It also helps to connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to be able to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

            Your resolution must also involve your values as well as your actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking.

Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health,” (your value) but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape,” (your value) but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family,” (your value) but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

            Do you want your New Year’s resolution to have a chance of succeeding? To increase the likelihood of success, your resolution should include a plan of action that results from your motivation to change. Second, the plan should include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals. Third, the plan must be connected to your values. Fourth, initiate your plan now, not at some future date.  

Christmas Therapy

The holidays are a time when a lot of folks seem to focus on happiness. It’s Christmas! Let’s gather around the tree, sing carols, laugh, and have a happy time. Unfortunately, holiday happiness can be elusive because too often people tend to center their search around “me,” always asking, what do “I” need to do to make “myself” happier? If this sounds like you, the problem here is that you’re being self-serving and looking for answers that are defined by your needs, your frustrations, your anxieties, your difficulties. “But,” you ask, “how can I possibly help myself if I don’t center my plans and actions around myself?”

Here’s a thought: Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the recipe, take yourself out of the recipe. Consider the possibility that, whatever your difficulty, you can use the emotions it generates within you to increase your sensitivity to others who suffer from trauma and conflicts similar to yours. This empathy will not only help others, but yourself as well. That’s right, taking yourself out of the formula will encourage you to reach out to others. The bonus? You will discover that reaching out will bring you ample helpings of personal satisfaction – call it happiness if you want, but it’s much more – and help you cope better with your problems. Many people feel that happiness is something that is acquired, like a trophy, a promotion, or winning the lottery. Psychology research shows, however, that happiness emerges from things you do, not from things you acquire. Reaching out to others, committing to a cause, working hard at a task, persisting in spite of frustration and adversity – these sorts of things seem more related to being happy than merely acquiring something.

Viewed from this perspective, one clear road to happiness involves empathy, a social responsiveness that does not involve a search for happiness, but a desire to help others because you understand their need. For instance, if you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as someone else, who can understand their plight better than you? Who is better equipped to relate to them than you? The true beauty of empathy and helping others, however, is that you reap the psychological benefits of contentment, satisfaction, and self-actualization. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. It’s not that empathy brings you happiness; it’s that empathy brings you a sense of being a useful person.

Here are some comments from clients in group therapy.

“Telling my story helped me face it as real. Then I knew others’ stories were real, too. I felt less alone. New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But I understood them, and knew they understood me. That was so cool.”

“I discovered I could help others. Hell, if I could do that, I should be able to face myself. That brought me a lot of inner peace.”

“It was amazing. I wasn’t the only one hurting. Others were there, too. Whenever I felt like I was drowning, I threw a lifeline to others in the group. We taught each other how to save ourselves.”

Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that – as you travel the road to discovering that you are useful – you leave no one behind. Christmas is unique in offering you that pathway. Take it. Doing so will help you will find yourself participating in – and enjoying the richness of – the human adventure.

Merry Christmas — Unless You’re Offended

            Georgia passed someone in the hallway where she worked. It was the last day of work before the Christmas holiday. She didn’t even know this person who said, “Merry Christmas.” Georgia replied, “I’m not a Christian, so I don’t celebrate the Jesus story. I also think Christmas is a ridiculous time when stores gouge the public with their overpriced merchandise. So spare me the Merry Christmas greeting. I find it offensive.”           

Complaints about politically-correct language increase around holiday time. You know, the “happy holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” stuff. Those who whine about this issue seem to forget that PC language boils down to courtesy, respect, and empathy for others who have a perspective different from theirs.

            To one degree or another, we all see ourselves as the most important ingredient in our life recipe. The strength of this self-serving bias varies from person to person, and even within ourselves at different times. Any way you look at it, however, the bias is there and it has the potential to make using PC language distasteful to those who refuse to accept that there’s a world out there beyond their personal space.

            Being conflicted about using PC language can be a source of stress in interpersonal relations. Witness Georgia and her merry co-worker. Here’s a coping thought: Let’s soften our life recipe to acknowledge the importance of ingredients other than ourselves. Let’s ask ourselves, “What determines how others remember me?” The answer is, “People remember how you make them feel.”

What sort of daily legacy do you want to leave? Do you want people to remember you as someone who makes them feel undervalued and inferior to you? Or, do you want them to remember you as someone who makes them feel good because you understand and respect their perspective?

            Why not adopt a little humility, and decide that life is not all about you; why not take the time to make others feel worthy of your respect. Doing so will remove from your mind frivolous, nonsensical things like worrying about PC language. You will feel more empowered and independent; you will feel more productive; and those feelings will bring you more personal satisfaction. Most important, you’ll have more pleasant interactions with others.

            Danny is one of those guys who greets life each day with a smile. His co-workers love him because he’s always ready to lend a helping hand and believes in teamwork. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and loves to defuse conflict with a light-hearted comment. On the last day of work before the Christmas holiday, he was exiting the building and passed an employee he didn’t know. He said with a big smile, “Happy holidays, happy Hanukkah, happy Kwanzaa, merry Christmas, bah humbug. Choose your preference!”

Mommy, Is Santa Real?

Poor Santa. Just at that time of year when millions of children idolize the guy, some journalist or reporter comes down on him as the cause of mistrust in children toward their parents. The idea boils down to a kid discovering – usually from a peer – that there is no jolly guy flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and that “my parents have been lying to me all this time. I’ll never trust them again.” Ah, the simplicity of pop psychology.

Christian evangelicals are also often vocal in their criticism of presenting Santa as real. They point out that lying is sinful; your child could also be embarrassed in front of peers; even worse, your child could suffer religious confusion among peers when faced with a question like, “You believe in God? I suppose you also believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny!” And, finally, many argue that focusing a child on Santa encourages them to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus.

I don’t buy these false narratives, which are not based on solid child psychology knowledge. For example, enlightened and empathetic parents can use their children’s newly-discovered skepticism about Santa as valuable life, family, and yes, religious lessons. “Hey, mom, Sally just told me that Santa isn’t real. Is that true?” I remember a conversation I had with a former student about this issue. She said that a few days before Christmas she and her 7-year-old daughter were wrapping presents. She told her daughter they could make one from Santa. “But mom, I know Santa’s not real.” When I asked mom how she handled that, paraphrasing, here’s what she said:

“Well, you know I teach elementary school, and I was ready for it. In a nutshell, I admitted that there was indeed not a bearded old man in a sleigh. But I brought up some of our family traditions and talked about them with her. Things we did, special decorations, meals, all the fun times we had at Christmas. And I asked her, ‘Has Santa been a part of all those fun times? How is Santa in this house? Could it be that we’re all Santa? You, me, your dad, your little brother? And what makes us Santa?’ She nailed this one and said, ‘We give each other presents!’ Building on that insight I went into some comments about giving and receiving, that both are blessings because they bring us together as a family. I said, ‘That’s who Santa is. All of us, and it’s one of the things that shows each of us that we love each other.’ I could tell she was really soaking all this in like a sponge. And then I took the plunge. I pointed at the Nativity scene we always had in a prominent place under the tree. And I went into the great gift that God, the ultimate Santa, gave us – his Son who would teach us to love one another.”

The pop-psychology stuff about seeding mistrust in children by lying to them about Santa is nonsense. First of all, an isolated deception about a real Santa is not going to sow mistrust of parents in an overall warm, supportive family filled with love and positive guidance. Furthermore, as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed us, children’s understanding about their world progresses through stages, and the first stage is very concrete. Their understanding is primitive. Try to explain to a 2-year-old that Santa is symbolic of the gifts of giving and receiving, those things that define a family and love, including the love and redemption we receive from Christ. Good luck. But, believe it or not, the vision of a jolly, smiling guy being towed through the sky by a bunch of flying reindeer is preparing the child’s mind for understanding those greater mysteries to be grappled with at a later age, with a more physically-matured brain. The fact is, the early belief in the real Santa is not at all incompatible with appreciating at a later age the significance of what’s really going on in that Bethlehem stable.

So, what’s our coping lesson here? Put more Santa into your life throughout the year. The reality of Santa embodies the principles of effective coping with stress: Get outside yourself and give service and support to others; likewise, receive what others bring you, remembering the difference between taking – which is based on egotistical self-absorption – and receiving – which is based on understanding, empathy, and humility. Remember, receiving allows you to give to another the special blessing of giving. Keeping Santa’s Ho-Ho-Ho in your heart will help you establish a psychologically healthy daily legacy that is based on making others – and yourself – feel good.

Holiday Grief

I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.

The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”

Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, focusing on how much they contributed to our life, and considering ways to honor their memory.

With that message in mind, here’s a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote for the blog on December 12, 2016, words that I like to repeat every year at this time.

HOLIDAY GRIEF

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away. 

Recently, I attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.” 

While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing. 

How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?

The most important thing to do, discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So, they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.

Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song!

These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent. 

Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Service to others is probably the most effective way of coping with personal loss. Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful. 

No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. It’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.  

There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.

You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.