The less-than-perfect family

Of course, you are only one chapter in your family story. Many people have at least one relative who always seems to get belligerent or drunk at family gatherings. You can plot ahead with other relatives to try to steer Uncle Bob away from dangerous topics of conversation or Aunt Marge away from the booze. However, there is only so much you can do. “If somebody is out of control or drunk, they’re in an irrational state,” says Dayton. “It’s pointless to try to reason with them then.”

If you anticipate that things may get tense despite your best efforts, plan an escape route, says Dayton. “Don’t overexpose yourself to the situation. Bring your own car so you can leave when you’re ready. If you’re visiting from out of town, consider staying in a motel, so you have your own safe space to retreat to.”

Home alone?

For some people, the problem with the holidays is not family, but the lack thereof. Loneliness seems to be particularly oppressive at this time of year. Find something to do, says Dayton, whether it is volunteering at a homeless shelter or taking a vacation. If you stay home, think of other people you know who may be in the same boat. Then invite them over for dinner or another activity, such as watching a parade. And if someone else extends a welcome invitation, “By all means, accept it graciously,” adds Dayton. “Don’t be shy about participating in another family’s rituals.”

Holiday grief

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not for everyone. Those who have recently lost a loved one often find that grief is felt particularly acutely during the holidays. If this is the first Thanksfiving or Hanukkah or Christmas since the person’s death, it may be especially tough, says John Welshons, M.A., a grief counselor from Little Falls, New Jersay, and author of Awakening From Grief: Finding the Road Back to Joy.

“The key to coping with grief is to not pretend that things are the same as they used to be. Try to bring some honesty to this difficult situation.”Every family needs to find their own way of doing this, however. For some, the best approach may be to restructure the holiday experience, by doing something different or traveling someplace new. For others, though, the opposite approach feels right.

Welshons says some families even put a photograph of the deceased in his or her chair at the table—”Not as a way of clinging to the past, but as a way of recognizing the change in the family in the present.” Other ways of memorializing the deceased include putting up his or her favorite ornament or visiting the grave. Says Welshons, “Such gestures may help people find a new way to connect in their hearts with the loved one now that he or she is no longer with them physically.”

Whatever approach is taken, Welshons says that family members need to accept that some sadness is probably inevitable and talk about what they’re going through. “Trying to create a false atmosphere of fun and frivolity just creates a sense of unreality that adds to the stress.” When family members are struggling with their own grief, they may not always be open to an honest sharing of emotion. In such cases, a friend, counselor, or support group can provide a sympathetic ear and much-needed emotional support.