For those navigating the holidays after loss, separation, or divorce, Janelle Peregoy shares strategies for managing the challenges the season brings.
A Catholic divorce support program participant leaned into my ear conspiratorially, “You know what really bothers me about the holidays? Matching family pajamas!”
Translation: She rejects the social media image of what the “perfect” family holiday season should look like—all the seemingly effortless smiles, meticulously wrapped presents, and immaculately white carpets.
For those navigating the holidays after loss, separation, or divorce, here are a few strategies for managing the unique challenges that the holiday season brings.
Divorce and separation are the loss of a marriage. As with any loss, it is important to grieve.
A friend once shared, “The first Christmas after my separation felt liberating. I remember convincing my sister to go out and have drinks with me on Christmas Eve. It was the second and third Christmases that felt brutal.”
- Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventual acceptance are all part of the grief cycle. Grief is anything but a linear process. Try not to expect to feel a certain way by a certain time. Instead, be present to your emotions where and when they arise.
- Some people are irritated by holiday festivities under the best of circumstances. Others welcome the distraction. Trust yourself to discern what you really need.
- Well-meaning friends and family might try to offer advice on how to celebrate the holidays. Take the suggestions with a grain of salt (this article included).
Recognize What You Can & Cannot Control
- You cannot control the casual acquaintance who asks you about your former spouse.
- You can control how you respond to that question. “We are currently separated, and I would prefer not to discuss it. Please tell me about your family.”
- You cannot control all the holiday gatherings—professional events, ugly sweater parties, or Christmas cookie exchanges—to which you are invited.
- You can control how many of them, if any, you choose to attend. A big element of what you can control is how you spend your time.
- Pray the Serenity Prayer when you struggle to know the difference.
Do Right by the Kids
- Co-parents need to stress how much your children are loved and celebrated. If your daughter takes a starring role as Mary in this year’s Nativity play, make sure you are both cheering from the first row!
- Children experience divorce and separation as a loss of stability and identity. Amid the custody decisions and shifting schedules, try to find continuity between this year and prior holiday seasons. If you have a tradition of chopping down the Christmas tree as a family, try to do continue to do so.
- Another divorce support participant shared that her sons were younger teenagers when she and her husband divorced. She asked them how they wanted to spend Christmas day and they responded by asking to go to a favorite cousin’s house. Not only was a new tradition formed, but she learned to value including her sons in the decision-making process whenever reasonable.
- Regardless of the season, seek professional help if your children are struggling to process their feelings, exhibiting unusual behavior, or are suffering academically.
- Adult children will also be grieving the loss of their parents’ relationship. Have open conversations with them about how this affects their lives.
Self-care is a buzzy term and can seem meaningless if it is just associated with getting a massage or taking a bubble bath. Genuine self-care promotes healing for spirit, mind and body.
- Spirit: make time for God. Pray regularly. Attend Mass. Seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you are not already involved in a parish ministry, now would be a great time to begin. Intentionally spend time with friends and family who speak to your soul.
- Mind: establish boundaries. If you have a former spouse who is prone to yelling or berating you over the phone, you do not accept the behavior. Tell your former spouse that all future communication will only be done through writing. If not, it can be done entirely through attorneys.
- Body: get enough rest and practice healthy sleep hygiene. Exercise. Eat Well. Do not rely heavily on alcohol or anything that simply numbs your emotions.
“Advent was so special to me during my divorce process. I could focus on hope and the light of Christ coming into the world. Those symbols held so much more meaning during my own pain.”
- Advent stands in contrast to the overt commercialization and secularization that can plague the Christmas season. At its core, Advent is a time for waiting for Christ’s incarnation and ultimately of his healing of humanity.
- Attend an Advent retreat or an Advent service at your parish. Besides choosing to spend your time well, it allows your faith community to bear witness to your grieving process.
- Listen to traditional Advent hymns. “O Come, O Come, Emanuel” has haunting lyrics that reflect the sorrow of the human condition. Yet it simultaneously leaves the listener with so much hope.
- Pray with the Psalms. They show us an ancient way of lamenting and normalize bringing our full emotional selves authentically before God.
Ultimately, this is your own healing process. Trust yourself and trust your own discernment. May you feel God’s abiding presence throughout this Advent and Christmas season.
Copyright 2023 Janelle Peregoy
About the Author
Janelle Peregoy, M.Div, is an Associate Director in the Office of Family Life & Spirituality at the Diocese of San Diego. So yes, she has found one of the few positions where it is professionally acceptable to contemplate the spirituality of potty training. A Pope Francis bobble-head sits on her desk for inspiration. See more from Janelle on her blog, Faithfully Irreverent.