How to Survive the Holidays When Your Heart is Breaking

by Elizabeth Hunter on December 20, 2012

Just the smell of sugar cookies and cinnamon candles made my stomach tighten into a nervous fist. Hearing a christmas carol piped out of a tinny department store sound system (in the U.S. this starts in November :() made me break a cold clammy sweat. Twinkling holiday lights against a cold & starless night sky sent me running away in terror.

During the years when I was single (and longing for a partner), then when I was childless (and longing for children), the holidays just  freaked me out.

I’d spend the month of December in a frenzied, overscheduled  battle to avoid–what?  Not the holidays exactly (I adore every little heartwarming, sentimental, over-the-top spiritual bit of holiday cheer). No, it was this vague aching feeling, an unnamed pain about the state of my life (and the world) that all this ho ho ho-ing brought to the surface.

My holiday avoidance/survival  ‘strategy’ worked brilliantly!  By keep myself over scheduled, worrying about what everyone in my life (except me) thought/wanted/needed, creating complicated to do lists, taking really crappy care of myself, and just generally building myself into a state of perpetual Martha Stewartistic overdrive, by around December 5th  I would be…  totally NUMB. Unable to feel anything at all-joy or pain. Which was of course the point.

So maybe you’re not in the extreme position I was right now.  Or maybe you are.  I started writing this piece to help all the women who are aching for a child to get through this holiday season.  Something about the holidays seems to shine a glaring light on all the empty spaces in our lives, doesn’t it? For women who worry they may never become mothers, this can be almost too much to bear.

But now, after the unspeakable pain that has been unleashed from the events in Connecticut last week–all I can think about is the women who are standing on the opposite side of the river from us– those mothers who have loved and lost a child. Even writing those words is almost too much to bear.  I sit here and wonder: how will these mothers ever carry this pain without falling down? How can we help them?

I don’t know.  But I do know this.  There are very few people whose hearts have not been broken open in scary, uncomfortable & unfamiliar ways by this tragedy.  There are very few of us going into this holiday season with our hearts intact.

So I offer up this overflowing holiday gift basket of nourishment and comfort to you.  Here is what I know–every little tool & technique–to help you find comfort, hope, love, connection, transformation, and, yes, joy, this holiday season.

(note: As with all gift baskets, don’t overdo or you could get a stomach ache. Be selective. Pick and choose to find your favorite. Enjoy. )

In Peace & With Tremendous Love. xo elizabeth

How to Survive the Holidays When Your Heart is Breaking (A Seasonal Gift Basket)

1.Be aware of numbing behaviors.

The line between happy social whir and negative overscheduling can sometimes be hard to see this time of year. A little less sleep or a few extra cookies might be a good thing for you.  Or not.  Everyone is different. Here’s a great way to tell  if you are pushing and overextending yourself.

Before you go to bed, take a moment to mentally review your day.  Count up how many moments of ‘exhale’ you had today– moments of gratitude, stillness, pure joy,  laughter, presence,  deep connection, or even pain that feels weirdly like beauty?

if you are going through day after day with fewer than  6  of these, this is a sign you are running on empty and possibly running from something.

2. Take the ass backwards approach to holiday time management.

if you think you may be numbing out, but feel like you just don’t have the time to  deal with it till January, hold up.Here’s why acknowledging feelings will actually save you time.

When you are in pain,your wise inner self knows it even if you don’t.  Avoiding it  just makes the wisest part of you work harder to get your attention.  You may feel incredible resistance to getting things done.  Or a general tiredness that is not of the body. Taking a quick read on what the problem is can free up stuck energy and help you get more things done faster. Simply ask yourself, ‘what is my ‘hot spot’ right now? (fear that adoption won’t work, for example). Hint: it almost never has to do with what someone else is doing wrong.  Breathe into it.  Then let it go.  Get on with your day.

3. Get still.

Create a mini ritual that helps you guarantee a few moments of stillness each day to honor what is sacred in your life.  Don’t stress out over the word ‘ritual.’ A ritual is just a beautiful way to help you remember something that is important to you. A ritual uses physical cues–tea, candlelight, a brisk walk, bubble bath, the feeling of cold winter air on your face–to calm you down. And you do it at about the same time each day. There is no wrong. It can take less than one minute. You know you’re getting the hang of it when you look forward to it. My current favorite ritual this holiday?  Waking up to candlelight, not electric lights.  Then I wake up my daughter by candlelight and we have tea as the sun comes up.

4. Get back in your body.

Keep it simple.  During a moment of quiet, take a breathe and ask your wisest self for one thing you could to reconnect with your body.  Just go with the first thing. Not what you ‘should’ do but what would feel good to your body. Like, “I just want to spend an hour in the woods.”  Or “I need to dance!”  Make a mental note of any good feelings after doing this.

5. Practice finding the ‘Body Yes!’

This is a perfect time of year to begin to practice the skill called finding the ‘Body Yes!’ or the ‘hell yes!’ When faced with a decision or choice, pick a moment in the day–maybe after stillness ritual above, or any time you accidentally find yourslef feeling good and relaxed. Let the answer to your question bubble up and zing you from your body, not your mind or your overdrive slightly manic self.  See if you can feel what this feels like when your body is truly onboard. Martha Beck calls it”Shackles Off.”   Notice how  your body tells you it wants to do something  There’s a resonance or a centeredness when something is Yes from the body and while you can still be totally excited by it, it doesn’t have that manic edge to it. This gets easier with practice.

6. Set an intention for the holidays that is yours alone.

‘Shoulds’ really don’t work for God either (as in, I ‘should get closer to God’ this season).  Get real. What is  important to you right now?  maybe it’s an overwhelming desire to rest, or connect.  Maybe you need to travel and get away from it all. Find a word that expresses how you want to feel this season and make that your mantra.

7. See beauty in pain.

This may seem like some mad science experiment at first glance,  but it helps to give you perspective.  If you do feel in a lot of pain, revel in it. It can be strangely soothing to hear a beautiful song that speaks directly to your pain and even intensifies it, or  watch a play or  experience a painting  that actually puts words or colors or melodies to your darkness. The holidays provide so many creative possibilities for this.

8. Find the reason for the season.

I’m not referring to any of the  religious elements of the season here.  I mean back in the day, the ancient ancient day, before organized religion of any kind, when it was all about nature and the flow of the seasons. In the Northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of the year.  So go with it.  Turn out the lights. Revel in the mystery that is the darkness. Imagine what it was like when there were no floodlights on the world.  Feel it in your body.  Welcome the darkness of the season and ask it to show you something you desperately need to see.

9. Create something.

Take your pain and transform it into something tangible.  Then find a way to put it out into the world.  Take some beautiful photos and make a little album to give to friends, bake some cookies and decorate them in your own unique style and share, make some sketches and turn them into holiday cards , go caroling at a local hospital and  really get into the lyrics. Make some really kicking punch for the office party. Whatever you do, do it with your own style and with the intention releasing and transforming your pain. Let it help you connect to life again. And let it go.

10. Disassemble holiday.

Pretend the holidays are a deck of cards and play 52 card pickup: throw all the cards up in the air and see where they land. Look at all the things you normally do, are committed or scheduled to do, are thinking about doing, have plans to do.  Then think about your holiday word or intention. Does each activity fit this? If not, be ruthless: this is kind of scrooge-ey, but edit your schedule drastically. try to tone down the voice of other people’s demands. Think about January and how you want to feel when all is said & done. If you can’t quite walk away from something that doesn’t feel good, see if you can tweak it or change it somehow so it feels more aligned with your intention.  Every little move in this direction adds up quickly!

11. Reassemble holiday.

Now that you’ve created a little space by discarding one or two things that really are a drain, start shaping your holidays in an active way to make them yours alone and unlike anyone elses. .Think of each of the things you love or have ever loved about the holidays or have dreamed of doing for the holidays. What worked and how did it make you feel and what can you do to create more of this feeling?.  Feel free to Take pieces of things if the whole doesn’t work (inspired by the candelight midnight mass on Christmas Eve  but let go of some  of the other church holiday obligations, for example) Think of unconventional things that could become your own seasonal new rituals (Before we had children, my husband and I went to a local performance of Tuba Christmas, a national event of Christmas carols played on tubas. We had so much fun, we have come back every year since as our familiy has grown and now we take all four kids

12. Reach out to people who  make you feel good.

You know who I’m talking about. The people who always leaving you feeling energized & inspired after talking to them.  Make time for them.

13. Make it real.

If you are longing for a child, write a letter to him/her from your heart. Get some intention/prayer beads (they even make some for women adopting) and feel the beads in your hands while you connect with your meant to be child.  Use the heightened, mystical energy of the holidays to ground your dreams into the physical world in some way.

14. Stress presence not presents.

It is a great & rare gift to everyone around you to show up & be truly present and not stressed out! A survey  found almost nobody remembered the presents they received as a child. Rather, “rituals, relationships and feelings.” were what remained as the years passed. Have the courage & humility to make your gift giving, card sending, cookie making humble and meaningful and personal or skip it entirely if that feels right and necessary.  It takes a lot of self esteem and stillness not to try to “match” what you think other people will give or do.

15. Reclaim your right to be ‘ spiritual.’

Even if you’re not religious. Or in fact just the opposite. Especially if you live in a world where people will look at you funny if you just say the world ‘spiritual.’ The truth is we are all deeply ‘spiritual.’ it’s really just a matter of loosening up and expanding your definition of what ‘spiritual’ means.  Everything is spiritual that involves the following feelings:  reveling in beauty of any kind, love of nature,  art, a child, the joy of creativity, experiencing something new, gratitude, appreciation, love, any generous or kind impulse, deep connections (to people, a red cardinal on a sparkling icicle branch, the way your body opens up to even the faintest sunlight this time of year.)  Forget everything you know. Go to a place that just feels holy.  Sacredness and reverence is bubbling up from inside you. It makes life sweeter.  This is a wonderful time of year to begin again.

16. Lower the bar.

this one should be tatood on my sorry forehead. and this is the offense for which Martha Stewart and others like her truly should be put into jail–for tormenting all the rest of us by setting the bar so high that we forget the joy of doing something badly.  Go for memorable experiences not perfect products.

17. Be a respectful observer.

if you do find you are engulfed in sad or negative feelings and you’ve tried other things, stop trying. Cultivate the attitude of a non judgmental but interested and compassionate observer.  Give yourself space to breathe and stop berating yourself.

18. Find & prolong small moments of joy.

If you are just not feeling it this season, don’t fight it. Be where you are.  But when a moment of beauty, joy or sincere gratitude does find you, prolong it as long as you can  See if you can challenge yourself to sit with it for 10 seconds more, for a minute more, for five minutes more.  Don’t jump to the next thing and plan on feeling it later, because it may be a while (this one thanks to my friend Sara).

19. Sip the holidays like a French woman.

Did you ever watch a french woman sit at a cafe drinking coffee?  It could take her an hour.  She take the tiniest sips. And waits forever in between each sip. Staring at the people passing by. As if each sip is an entire experience in itself, not a task to be completed.  Remember: it’s the holidays not The Holidays. Enjoy small sips. Slow down. Don’t gulp trying to cram it all in. Try not to make a big fat deal of it all.  Try not to have too definite a picture of what it should be like.  Try to let it find you.

20. High five yourself.

What did you actually do right this year?  what’s going right in your life? what miracles have happened? We are so wired to focus on the Next Big Thing or the Thing That is Wrong. The things that have come our can seem  small and trivial looking back.  Because you have them now. They didn’t look so small when you didn’t have them!

21. Forgive.

Finally…Forgive yourself for every thing you came up short on this year.  Don’t just mouth the words.  Let your heart soften a little bit towards yourself.  Then forgive this messy infuriating world and all the people in it.  Not because they deserve it.  But because feeling any other way will give you high blood pressure.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Considerer December 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh thank you for these :)


Nikki December 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm

This is full of great advice. Thanks for the gift basket. As a mom that has lost a child (premie that passed away after 33 days in the NICU) and is currently in the adoption process and waiting each and every one were perfect. Thank you again!


Claire December 22, 2012 at 12:52 am

Nikki, I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope that you will experience the miracle of adoption very soon!


Jessica December 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm

You’ve outdone yourself, I love it! THANK YOU.
Signed adoptive mom-to-be who appreciates blog that understand IF/adoption grief.


Claire December 22, 2012 at 12:54 am

Beautiful as always, Elizabeth. I have had my share of heartbroken holidays (during my IF and miscarriage days), and after last week’s events I have been feeling guilty trying to celebrate at all. My biggest motivator is that my son deserves a good Christmas. If it weren’t for him, this would definitely be another heartbroken holiday for me.

(I especially like #3).


Vicki February 22, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for linking this up with the Weekly Adoption Shout Out, it’s great to find another blog to read and I’ll certainly be looking back through your posts.

This one is great. I love Christmas, I’m organised, it’s *my* time, but my son struggles, and some of these are great reminders of things that can help him. x


elizabeth hunter February 23, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Nice to meet you, Vicki! Look forward to connecting more :)


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