Paul K. Chafetz, PhD Clinical Psychology
At this festive time of year, expectations run high. Fueled by memories of “the good old days” and idyllic scenes from TV commercials, our hopes are raised for holiday gatherings full of pleasant interactions with loving and approving friends and family. We will surely feel connected, loved, welcomed, and validated.
In reality, however, not every relative is delightful, not every child is successful, not every loved one is in good health, not every gathering is joyous, not every family is harmonious, and not every dinner table conversation is constructive. Not every heart will be content. When any aspect of our personal holiday picture is badly broken, our heartache fills our screen. The pain runs deep, and life seems simply awful.
However, here is what I have learned from my career as a psychologist. Whatever our age, as painful as our personal situation may be, it could be much worse. This vital truth should be recognized as a compelling reason for each of us to be extremely grateful. Let me illustrate.
1. Some of my older patients are lonely and sad because they have too little family. Perhaps they have just one or two children, but the children are both far away. The holidays are too quiet for comfort. Some of my older patients have a large family, but their own kids are estranged or have passed away with no spouses or children, leaving my patients feeling bereft even while sitting among siblings and their children.
2. Some of my older patients actually have too much family. There are so many households in the clan that it is impossible to coordinate as much together time as the patient used to have when there were fewer spouses and in-laws. The result is a trail of hurt feelings as adult children make difficult choices about distributing their time among parents during the holidays. The amount of intimate family time pales compared to the past. Some of my patients have open conflict with their in-laws, that is, the parents of their children’s spouses. If their children are emotionally closer to other side, there are always hurt feelings.
3. Some of my older patients have recently lost their spouse to death, so this is their first Christmas without their spouse. After any loss, every “first” is very hard. The grief is continually refreshed as if brand new. This is exhausting.
4. Some of older patients have recently placed their spouse in a dementia care facility. Just as in the case of losing the spouse to death, this is their first Christmas without their spouse by their side. After any loss, every “first” is very hard. The grief is continually refreshed as if brand new.
5. Some of my older patients themselves have new illness or impairment, so they cannot prepare for Christmas as they could before. They are no longer able to cook, decorate, entertain, or travel as in past years. This makes them feel sad, or sometimes resentful, guilty, or embarrassed.
6. Some of my older patients have elderly siblings or friends who live 1500 miles away, and both are too ill to travel and see each other one more time before someone passes away. Both sadly know they will probably never see each other again.
If any of the above examples does not describe your situation, you have a reason to be thankful! Would you trade your situation for (another) one from this list? In fact, perhaps some people would happily trade situations with you. I am confident that many people, if they knew you through and through, would envy your situation in life. They have troubles, too, I promise. They probably do not broadcast this fact, which is why we must all be careful to never compare our insides with other people’s outsides.
So, let us all strive to have realistic expectations of ourselves, our lives, our mood, and the behavior of those we love. We all have much to be thankful for, and I urge everyone to give that side of our lives its fair share of attention at this special season. Practice faith that all is for the good, and that these are the good old days!