A Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays


‘Tis the season. Are you ready?

December is upon us and the holiday craziness settles in.  My checklist becomes full of “got to get it done items”. Panic ensues with the realization that every fun and fantastic adventure cannot possibly be crammed into a month worth of days. Shopping, holiday cards, decorating, parties, wrapping, creative elf placements, family, friends, and baking: are we overwhelmed yet? For most of us the holiday season whirls by in a flurry of activity.  Yet for some, it inches along at an impossibly sluggish snail’s pace.

This December, I have found myself getting hung up on the sheer volume of minutiae. Either I am crazy with manic energy decorating and shopping online (I cannot handle busy stores and crowds of people these days), or I am literally frozen, at a loss for what task should come next, unable to move forward with any type of rational decision. A roller coaster of emotion, energy and exhaustion. For those who are surviving each day in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps a death of a loved one, divorce, diagnosis or any other life altering event, the description above may sound familiar. Any day can be a challenge when you are a survivor, but the holidays can pose even more hurdles and trials than usual.

It is unbelievable to me that I am heading into my third December as a widow. My holidays look similar to how they were when my husband was alive. The family gatherings continue.  The children still compose their lists to Santa. The tree gets decorated.  The cards are sent. Gifts are purchased. However, there is an emptiness that cannot be filled no matter how busy or how much joy you try to occupy your days with. Survivors, you know this emptiness.  The emptiness can be scary, lonely, sad, frustrating,  unending and unpredictable especially around the holidays. Stress is higher, our immune system is taxed, and memories tend to flood like no other time of the year. As a survivor I rely on a few simple rules that help me continue to sustain myself during the holidays.

  1. Breath: I know we don’t need a reminder to breath.  It is a function that our bodies do automatically, but it can be beneficial to actually slow down and draw awareness to our breathing sometimes. When the pit in your stomach starts churning or the rock sitting on your chest begins to bear down, breath. This is panic setting in. Panic can be triggered any day but especially during the busy holiday season.

    “Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.” -Andrew Weil, M.D. 

    One breathing technique I use is what I call the four count square breath.  Inhale through your nose filling your lungs for a count of four.  Hold the air in your lungs for a count of four.  Exhale through your nose for a count of four.  Hold your lungs empty for the last count of four before starting the process over. I visualize my breath rising, holding, or exhaling each as one of the sides to a square.  Focusing on your breath and breathing is a quick calming practice that can be done anytime.


  2.  Let it Go: Sorry if you are now singing, but the holidays are the time, my survivor friends, to let some things go.  It is ok. Choose quality over quantity and sanity over madness. Believe it or not there are eleven more months, 334 days, starting January 1st until the following December, to visit friends and family, bake cookies, and shop. If sending out cards seems overwhelming at this time, don’t send them. If you need to decline an invitation to a gathering, do it. No guilt. No shame. No explanation needed. Start small. Next year you might feel like adding a few items back on to your to do list, or not.

  3. Start New Traditions: My husband, Kory, always insisted on putting up the lights on our house.  He had a system of placing each white bulb on the eaves perfectly spaced, standing at a 90 degree angle. Even if I didn’t fear falling from a teetering ladder and cracking my skull open, I would never be able to replicate his flawless linear masterpiece. Hiring someone to hang our lights is a practical solution, but it doesn’t seem right. Instead, I have opted to hang or place lighted objects in the front of the house.  Our first year we had a snow flake and a snowman.  Each year we have added items.  Our menagerie this year consists of the original favorites, two additional snow flakes, a couple of trees and icicles.  Not perfect by past christmas light standards, but perfect for us as a new holiday tradition. It is important to remember the past, but be careful not to compare what was to what is.

  4. Be Gentle: As a child my emotions typically ran high during the holidays. They vacillated between excitement anticipating the arrival of Santa to overwhelming love and joy surrounding visits with family members to fatigue due to lack of sleep and overstimulation. The holidays can be emotionally overwhelming and exhausting for adults as well. Emotions are normal and showing emotions should not be something to be ashamed of. As survivors, we need to be aware of our emotional wellbeing. Memories of the past can sneak up on you when you least expect them. Knowing this can alleviate some anxiety.  Let yourself feel the emotions that come with the memories without shutting them off or stuffing them away. Song lyrics are my weakness, so I know that if I am driving along and a song comes on that triggers a memory the tears will be flowing. That is my normal. If your emotions start to fray or you feel overwhelmed be gentle with yourself and others. Take a step back. Give yourself a “time out”. Find a quiet place. Meditate, pray, cry, scream, go for a walk, sleep, give yourself as much time as you need to regain balance.

  5. Keep a clear focus: A holiday is supposed to be “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.” This winter holiday season is not about how much effort we put into the celebration, but rather what we are coming together to celebrate. If you are celebrating the strength and resilience of the Jewish faith through Hanukkah or the birth of Christ, a baby born to a virgin in a manger, keep focused on the meaning of the holiday. Don’t let the minutiae rule and ruin. If gathering with the family and friends, serving people in need within your community, or spending time in prayer at church is your focus,  make that your priority. Whatever does not benefit or add to what you want to focus on should not monopolize your energy and time.

The year has been difficult sweet survivors.  Life has turned you upside down, but you are present to celebrate and witness the love, joy, and peace of the season. Take a moment to to sit in the wonder and the awe.


From my family to yours

Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays


May light, strength and hope be with you in the New Year!

3 thoughts on “A Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays

  1. Merry Christmas my sweet friend. Beautiful post as always I will use your breathing technique often I’m sure. It was great sitting and enjoying your company last night. It was a very nice break from the oanic pace!


  2. Happy Holidays my friend. Your strength is unwavering and your positive outlook and love for your family is beautiful to witness. Hugs to you! xo


  3. Rory, you are so amazingly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing and connecting. I find such inspiration, depth of emotion, and intention in your postings. Thank you from my heart friend.


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