For most of his life, BC resident Graeme Bryson looked forward to the first week of December to decorate his home for the holidays.
So it surprised everyone when, in November of 2009, Bryson decided he wasn’t going to celebrate Christmas that year because of a particularly painful breakup. The relationship had stopped suddenly after three years together, and it hit Bryson hard.
“It ended up being a good thing in the end,” said Bryson, “but at the time, it was really difficult.”
For many people, the end of the year heralds a season of sad reminders and time alone. Death of a loved one, financial struggles or the first holiday season spent away from home can throw even the most cheery into a funk.
Karen Tinsley-Kim, English as a Second Language (ESL) Instructor at the University of Florida, says she understands the experience of feeling isolated and lonely during the holiday season, both from her own experiences travelling and working in China, and from listening to her students’ stories.
“Every year I advise international students who are not from our culture, but stuck here during the winter break. Many are away from family, too,” says Tinsley-Kim.
So what does Tinsley-Kim recommend to people who, for whatever reason, aren’t feeling particularly joyful about the holidays?
“Make a list of some acts of kindness you can, perhaps secretly, perform for neighbours, classmates, and friends. Little things like offering to walk the dog, clean a driveway, or other small gifts of service for no charge will change your day,” she said in an email interview.
Bryson chose his own form of kindness after his breakup, but instead of focusing on others, he looked deep within himself.
“I worked Christmas Eve,” Bryson said, and then went home to watch television and ponder his situation. “It was very surreal.”
Christmas Day was even more difficult, so he took the opportunity to “reflect about those who are alone during the holidays, such as older people and singles.”
When some friends called at the last minute and invited him to visit in a city three hours South, he hesitated at first, but eventually agreed. So he packed a bag, booked a hotel room, and made his way down.
The gesture, he said, was “well-meaning,” but once he arrived he realized the activity only, “accentuated the fact that I was alone.”
Peter Spinogatti, psychotherapist and author of Explaining Unhappiness (Buy Direct), thinks that Bryson might have enjoyed the holiday more if he had followed his initial gut feeling, and spent it alone.
“Happiness consists in the ability to sit peacefully in a room by oneself,” Spinogatti said in an interview. He suggests to anyone finding themselves struggling during a difficult time to, “entertain yourself by constructing your own narratives in whatever form they take.”
MarBeth Dunn, who calls herself a "Transformation Through Loss expert", agrees. She tells her readers that seeing sadness from a different perspective can bring great joy.
“Any loss can be challenging, but viewed correctly, it can be used for powerful positive transformation,” she says. “The feeling of hopelessness comes from being trapped in the illusion that you can’t change your circumstances.”
Changing those circumstances doesn’t necessarily involve anything more than going for a walk or meditating, says Gail Behrend, author of Energy Is Real: A Practical Guide for Managing Personal Energy in Daily Life (Buy Direct).
“Contrary to what most people believe, loneliness is an attitude. If you choose to see yourself as empty inside, you look to others to fill the void within,” she said in an interview. “But if you choose instead to see your own loving nature and extend it towards others, you find yourself enjoying that love as it flows through you.”
Behrend also suggests journalling, taking a long bath, or expressing yourself creatively with the help of a book, like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Buy Direct), as ways to change your mindset.
Bryson, however, wishes he’d done nothing more than listened more to his inner voice.
“Sometimes I don’t trust my instincts,” he said.
In hindsight, Bryson feels he would have honoured his needs more by staying home in 2009, and spent more time reflecting on his reasons for being alone.
This year, he started outfitting his home with Christmas cheer the first weekend of December. “I’m ready for this now.”
He put up a Christmas tree in his house with a wreath on the front door, and plans to have company over during the holidays, something he hasn’t attempted in two years.
His best advice for others feeling lonely this Christmas is the same gift he wishes he gave himself in 2009.
“You know what you need,” Bryson said. “If you say to yourself, 'I want to hibernate,' then allow yourself the luxury to heal.”