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It’s that time of year again. “Ah, the Holidays,” we say.
Or perhaps, “Oh no! The Holidays!”
No matter what we think about this time of year, one thing is certain: the Holidays are stressful.
Two things in particular make this time of year challenging. First, expectations. And second, grief.
Expectations are powerful. Most of our disappointment in life can be linked to unmet desires or expectations of some kind. When circumstances don’t go the way we hope, we get ruffled. When people hurt instead of support us, our hearts wince. When tragedy strikes, our worlds turn upside down.
The Holidays come with massive expectations. Most are unspoken and sneaky. We don’t even know we have them. Yet these unseen phantoms mercilessly drive us to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion. On the outside, we smile. On the inside, we’re screaming, “Bah, humbug!”
The measuring stick is our hearts. After the holidays, when we look inside, what do we find? More joy, peace, and contentment? A deeper a sense of connection with those closest to us? A greater commitment to our purpose and mission in life?
Or are we left with a hollow feeling that we missed out again somehow?
Expectations are often the culprit. If we’re not aware of them, they can steal our holiday valuables faster than the Grinch himself.
Here’s a few questions to help us think through them:
-What do I think these holidays should be?
-What do I believe I must do for the holidays to be good?
-What do I think others’ expect of me?
-Who am I trying to please?
You have expectations, and so do those around you. Again, most of them are unspoken. Until we take the time to identify them, they can rule our lives. We may be signing up for holiday misery, year after year, without ever knowing it. Then we grumble that we’re not appreciated and that other people don’t get it. We swear we’ll never do that again, and then we do.
Here’s the good news. We have a choice. We get to choose what we do, how, and with whom.
“But, you don’t understand! I have to…” No, you don’t.
“Yes, I see that, but I should…” Who says?
“Have to” and “should” produce gobs of Holiday stress. What do we want to do? How do we want to do it? And with whom?
If we’re operating on “have to” and “should,” chances are our hearts aren’t fully in it. And aren’t the Holidays ultimately about our hearts?
Here are five steps to managing holiday expectations well:
First, identify those expectations, as many as you can.
Second, consider what you want to do, how, and with whom.
Third, take yourself seriously – your situation, health, finances, etc. What’s feasible and also wise?
Fourth, prioritize. What’s most important? What’s second, third, and so on? Let your heart lead the way.
Fifth, be ready to adjust! No plan is perfect. Make sure you have the wiggle room to be flexible.
“Just say, ‘No!’” is a popular substance abuse slogan, but it applies well to the Holidays too. Yes, some people might be disappointed. Others might misunderstand and be angry. That’s their choice. We won’t be able to please them anyway. We’re just not that powerful.
Expectations make the Holidays challenging, but grief can really complicate things. At holidays, we tend to be hyper-aware of who’s missing.
This is often the elephant in the room at holiday gatherings. We miss so-and-so. They’re not at the table. There are no presents for them under the tree. Their voice is silent. Their absence is palpable.
We don’t know what to do with this sense of emptiness, so usually we don’t talk about it. Everyone feels it, but no one brings it up. Maybe we’re afraid of the emotions. Perhaps we think acknowledging the loss will affect the holiday negatively.
Pretending doesn’t work. We can’t just set aside our feelings about a missing loved one. The emotions follow us and influence everything profoundly anyway. And how can we “set aside” a person, as if they didn’t mean much to us? If we loved them, we’ll feel their absence keenly.
How do we deal with grief over the holidays?
It may be best to meet it head on.
The loved ones we’ve lost matter. We miss them. We wish they were here. We want to see them and hear their voice. We long for their presence. It’s like they were ripped away from us, and it hurts.
They’re important to us. Why would we shut them out of the holidays? Instead, can we find ways to honor them and celebrate their lives?
We might put an empty chair at the table. We could continue a tradition they were deeply involved in, but modify it in a way that’s meaningful and honors them. We might display a picture of them and tell a few stories. We could have a time of thanksgiving specifically remembering them.
And we don’t have to be afraid of openly sharing what we miss about them. This can be very healing and cathartic. The grief is already there. As we choose to be honest about it, our hearts will be more connected to what’s happening this Holiday season.
We don’t hear much about holiday grief, but it plagues almost everyone we know. We don’t know what to do with it, so we do nothing. We end up either stuffing our grief or dreading the Holidays – or both.
If you or someone you know is facing holiday grief, consider these two resources:
-I Miss You: A Holiday Survival Guide - A short, free e-book on how to grieve well and still make the holidays work for you. Available at www.garyroe.com/i-miss-you .
-Surviving the Holidays Without You: Navigating Grief During Special Seasons - An easy-to-read roadmap for how to heal, honor your loved one, and make holidays as good as possible. Available in paperback or e-book on Amazon, www.garyroe.com , and at Hospice Brazos Valley (821-2266).
If we focus on grieving well, it will free us to celebrate well too.
Let’s identify the expectations (our own and others’) so we can make better, wiser choices this year. Let’s feel our grief and honor those we miss. Let’s make these Holidays different. They won’t be perfect, but they can still be good.

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Visit him at www.garyroe.com or contact him at 821-2266 or groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org .