The holidays can be tough. Period. But nothing is harder than going through the holiday when you are in the middle of a divorce or separation. It may be the first time you have to be away from your kids. You might be in a different home or not doing the things that you normally do.
I remember the first Thanksgiving after my husband filed for divorce; my boys were with me because they refused to spend time with their dad, but my daughter who was only ten years old at the time, flew across the country to be with her dad and his affair partner for Thanksgiving. It was one of the most excruciating times of my life.
During this time of my life, I still served as a pastor at my church and I was responsible for the big community Thanksgiving meal we hosted every year. Every time I looked at the families enjoying their meal together, I felt like my heart was splitting into a thousand little pieces. No longer would my husband and I sit with our kids as an intact family and celebrate the holidays.
Now it would be the agony of “shared custody” and “holiday parenting schedules” that would rule what used to be our favorite time of the year. I was devastated physically and emotionally. That year, after I finished my duties at church, I went to a friend’s house and spent three hours in her bedroom uncontrollably weeping over my lost future.
Everywhere I looked that year, something reminded me of how my holidays would be forever changed. I wasn’t part of my husband’s extended family anymore; they had unilaterally shunned me after my older sons aged 16 & 20 decided that they couldn’t support their father’s infidelity. Gone were the days at the lake house, the family vacations with cousins and aunts, and uncles, along with 23 years of family traditions.
I went to work Christmas parties by myself, acutely aware of my new “single” status. Friends were sympathetic, but unless they had experienced something similar, they were completely clueless about the tsunami of grief the holidays can trigger.
Trigger During The Holiday Season
As I moved through my divorce, different things would trigger me. Not having been through this kind of trauma before, I didn’t know to expect to be triggered; I was just trying to survive on a day-to-day basis. Looking back on my experience, I offer you a list of possible triggers to be aware of so as to help you navigate these rough waters. It is not easy, but it is doable, and believe it or not, you will not be stuck in excruciating pain forever.
At first, the pain batters you endlessly as if you are a tiny lifeboat in the middle of a class five hurricane. As time and healing do their job, the twenty-foot waves begin to get further and further apart, and then begin to not be quite so high. Eventually, your triggers become more and more manageable, and you can even see and (maybe) prepare for them.
Here is my advice for handling your triggers during the holiday season.
1. The first thing to do is to reach out to a group of people (preferably the same sex) who can help you weather this hurricane. They need to be people who have experienced trauma before and who won’t try to hurry you through your recovery. If you have spiritual roots, you may want to consider a Celebrate Recovery program. I have found this to be very helpful in my recovery process. Other possible groups include Divorce Care, church support groups, online support groups, or even supportive friends who understand what you are going through.
2. If you never saw the divorce coming and were completely blindsided, you may experience PTSD-like symptoms. Along with depression and withdrawal, you may be hyper-vigilant and unable to cope with day-to-day activities or decisions. The sudden abandonment of divorce or attack by a spouse that you deeply love can trigger panic and disorientation as real as any physical threat.
See a doctor and get medication if needed. Exercise, and meditate, but realize that your feelings are legitimate, and be gentle and understanding with yourself and others. Don’t be quick to judge or make assumptions. Don’t be ashamed to ask for assistance and admit when you cannot do it alone. Seek the help you need and know that it does get better.
3. Any kind of holiday or family tradition may trigger you, especially the first time you go through it after your separation or divorce. That’s completely normal, and in fact, may take several years to subside. The longer you were with your spouse, the more triggers you are likely to have, and the more you will have to move through. But it is important that you do, so you can eventually move past them.
4. Obsessive thinking. Many people going through intense pain of this kind try to make some sort of sense of it. They replay conversations and scenarios over and over in their mind in an effort to understand why this happened. They talk endlessly to their friends and family about it. Again, this is normal, but after a while, obsessive thinking should and needs to begin to subside. If you are having trouble with obsessive thoughts becoming uncontrollable, see a doctor or therapist to help you over this hump. Sometimes anxiety or depression medicine can help us cope.
The reality is that divorce is a type of death, and with death comes grief. The more you loved, the more grief you can expect to feel. No one who is married either happily or unhappily wants this outcome. They loved this person. Hence, there are triggers that exact emotional revenge upon us. Even if we are happier than we were while married, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel sadness for what once was. Be gentle with yourself and others and know that this too will pass.