“I don’t know how I will get through Thanksgiving or Christmas this year. It’s the first time I won’t be with my kids. My soon-to-be-ex is taking the kids to his parents for the holiday, as we always did as a family. But this year I am going to be all alone.” How am I going to survive the holidays while I am in the middle of a divorce?”
Jenny (a pseudonym) spoke tearfully in her therapy session. Being without your children on a special holiday is so painful, and another one of those losses I wrote about some weeks ago. The holidays can trigger another wave of sadness and anger about your divorce. They are a painful reminder of how things used to be and how different your life is now. So what do you do?
How to Survive the Holidays Without Your Kids
If you are in the middle of your divorce, your time-sharing schedule or parenting plan may not be done yet. You and your soon-to-be-ex will need to plan for the holidays several weeks or months in advance.
“We already had tickets to go to Florida, like we do every year. Should we all still go or should I let my spouse just take the kids?” asked another distraught mom, Amy, in my office. It is common that divorce arises when there are already holiday plans on the calendar. Some parents agree to keep this one last holiday season as a family event, knowing that next year will be different.
Others try to negotiate an arrangement for this year that may or may not set the precedent for future years. After exploring the question with Amy, she decided to withdraw from the Florida plan “because we have been fighting so much lately, I think we just need time apart. Plus, I would hate to ruin the holidays for the kids with our arguing all the time.”
This was a hard decision for Amy, and she had to put her kids’ feelings first. She believed this was the right thing to do. But she was unhappy and resentful about it.
First, recognize your emotions and talk with someone
You don’t have to bear those feelings alone. Call a close friend, a family member, or your therapist. Just talking about the feelings eases the pain a little. Then it might be easier to share your children’s excitement as they prepare to leave your home for the celebrations. Keep the holidays cheerful for the sake of your kids. Remember that the divorce is just between you and your ex and that your kids’ holiday experience should still be a happy one.
Second, don’t sit home and eat a quart of ice cream in front of the TV.
My client, Michael, did exactly this last year, washing it down with booze, and he is determined to do it differently this year. “I realized that I have to plan ahead, and I have never been a good planner. My wife did all that. So this year I got myself invited to some friends for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I figured if that hadn’t worked out I would serve food at our local homeless shelter instead. At least I would feel good about doing something nice for others. And my life wouldn’t look so bad when I help others who are worse off than me.” Isolating and self-medicating won’t make you feel better. Make other plans.
Third, put your legal divorce process aside for the holidays.
You can pick it up again in January. Setting aside the stress of the divorce process will allow you to focus on what really matters during the holidays. What was important to you during the holidays before your separation is still important now. Focus on spreading peace, finding gratitude, sharing food with friends, taking time in nature, making the holidays meaningful for your children. Yes, things are different now. You’ll find new ways to celebrate the holidays, and you may find that you create new and meaningful traditions this year.
Lastly, take care of yourself
This is important during any stressful and painful period of your life. Eat healthy food you love, take a walk every day. If you can get into nature, even better. Avoid the ways you might be drawn to anesthetize yourself: drinking, binging, drugs, shopping, and the other things you may have done in the past to try to feel better. Watch a movie with a friend, or go hear some music. Just don’t isolate.
Try to remember that you will get through the holidays, things will get better, and that next year will probably be easier than this year.
An earlier version of this article was published in Psychology Today.