Tis the Season of Joy — And Sorrow

The holiday season is an amplifier.  It is often a time of great celebration and joy as family members and friends gather together in gift giving and meal sharing.  It is also a time of great sorrow for many as reconstituted families find new patterns of gathering and as many of us feel the absence of loved ones who are elsewhere, may have departed, are sick or dying or in long term care facilities or simply no longer a part of our lives.  And it can be overwhelming and stressful as we strive for perfection in a season that often already demands a lot of us and where expectations run high – the ones we have of ourselves and of others.

It is impossible to live life and not have our fair share of  joy, sadness and stress.  Simple little delights often bring the joy.  A particular Christmas song.  Lights.  Tree trimming. Christmas celebrations.  Buying someone that perfect little something – or creating it.  Traditions that are meaningful.  Conversations that are as delicious as the traditional holiday fixings.  Lovely memories.

The things that make the heart sing are a beautiful thing.  The things that make the spirit sad are harder to acknowledge.  Absences seem to be one of the most significant contributors to sadness at this particular time of year.  The absence of loved ones.  It is an experience I know.  We all do.

One example in my life: my mother is in long term care with dementia.  She’s been there now for three and a half years. Since May, seven months ago, we have been told she could leave us any day.  Some small part of her still inhabits her physical body while most of her is having a different kind of experience that is beyond my knowing at the moment.

She has been absent from our family Christmas celebrations the last two years physically and to varying degrees cognitively for longer than that.  A week or so ago, I was in a shopping mall.  Something in a store caught my eye. I was hit with a wave of missing my mother – really for the first time.  This woman loved Christmas and loved opening presents so much it happened so fast it was over almost before it began – until we found ways to slow the process down.  My mom was always like a kid at Christmas when it came to presents – until she forgot what to do with a present, forgot what it was or even how to open it.

We all have these kinds of stories.

Some of us have stories of being in relationships that are not fulfilling, meaningful or relevant anymore.  Some of us are no longer in relationships and carry sadness or regret as a result. Some of us are in relationships with loved ones who live far away from us.  This is a season that brings nostalgia about better times and brings heightened awareness of what is not working.  It shines a light on the imperfections of our lives and relationships.  It brings loneliness even as we are surrounded by people and festivities.

In a season that is “supposed” to be joyful, we don’t always know how to handle the emotions and times that are not.  When we try to suppress them, we just drive them underground for awhile.  They will resurface when an opening shows.  There is nothing wrong with surrendering into our sadness long enough to acknowledge it.  If it continues to overwhelm us deeply maybe we will need help to come out of it, but for most of us, surrendering into and acknowledging our own emotional turmoil, allows release.

There is nothing wrong with tears.  Truly, there isn’t.  Although many of us believe there is.  We apologize for our tears.  Like we are somehow weak and maybe imperfect because we cry – especially when we cry in front of other people.  But tears are releasing and healing and an indicator of our experience.  How much more beautiful it could be if we stopped apologizing for tears and let ourselves be in our experience and even have it witnessed by other people.  In the event it makes others uncomfortable, other people’s uncomfortablenss with our tears is not our responsibility.  And for most people who witness, it is also freeing for them.

As we allow ourselves to move through our own experience, we create more space for joy and delight to show up faster in our experience.  Staying in our sadness will not fill the absences, will not bring back people no longer here or bring people to us who are far away.  And most of those absent, would not want us to be lost in our sadness but would want us to celebrate the joy and vibrancy of life.  Even if they wouldn’t, our soul is inviting us to celebrate the vibrancy of life.

Another thing that detracts from the vibrancy of life is the stress of trying to make the perfect holiday – on top of so many other things that need tending – children, parents, work, life and death.  Very little of this stops just because it also happens to be Christmas and we now also need to shop, bake, decorate, wrap gifts, go to Christmas concerts and Christmas parties.

Some things could be left undone or done a little short of perfection.  How many cookies do you really need to bake?  How many presents do you really need to buy?  What if you boiled it down to the one or two essential elements that seem the most dear to you?  For me, it is gingerbread houses.  I make the house parts.  I thought about buying them one Christmas but realized how much a part of me is in this tradition – because I love to bake and love the delight of the gingerbread house process from start to finish.  Most of the rest of it I can let go – especially in my experience of reconstituted families.  When and how things happen is a matter for conversation and joint decision making that usually extends beyond my immediate family.

Tis the season of amplification.  What is joyful is more so, what is sad is more so, what is stressful is more so.  Tis also the season of reflection and remembering.  And maybe most important of all, let it be the season of self-care – because, in that, we shift and grow our capacity to embrace the joy, delight and imperfections of being human that are completely available to us in the season of amplification.

Reconstituted Families and the Holidays

In July 1990 I attended my 10 year high school reunion.  At the time, I was married to a handsome engineer, I had just graduated with my MBA, I had been the Executive Director of an Atlantic based health charity for just over a year and I was pregnant with my first child.  I thought I had it made.  Not in a million years would I have imagined how the shape of my life would have shifted 20 years later:  I have three children by two fathers and am twice divorced.  My two older children, now young adults, were born in my first marriage and my youngest, now 8 years old, was born in my second marriage.  Add to this, my mother is in long term care with dementia.  My father lives alone in the house they shared.  My brother also lives alone but in PEI.  And, since finding out I was adopted a few years ago, I now have birth family members in my life.  Over the holidays, to say the least, we are “stretched” in many different directions.

As I experience the comings and goings of my family over this holiday season and the times we are altogether, especially me and my three children, and as I am in conversations with so many of my friends in similar circumstances, I have been reflecting on “reconstituted families” – or, the term I became acquainted with through the adoption world, family constellations.

I like the term family constellations because it enables me to think of my vast array of family and friends, the various ways they show up in my life, and how they are connected to their constellations of family and friends, in an appreciative mode.  If I think of it any other way, I will be sad with feelings of “not enough” – not enough time with my children or my friends, not enough dinners, presents, experiences – what I’m missing instead of what I have.

What I have more than enough of  in my life and my relationships is love.  I have an abundance of love that overflows onto each of my children – individually and collectively – and onto my whole extended family and well beyond that to the people and relationships that I care deeply about – of which I also have an abundance.

I learned in my family growing up that friends can be like family and I experience that richly in my life.  I call them my soul family, knowing that we are finding each other along the way and feeling deeply grateful for how we enrich each others lives.  Some days I can hardly believe how rich I am.

When I greet my days, and my children in particular as I think about our family constellations over the holidays, with love, then there is enough.  It is perfectly right that they also spend time with their dads.  And it’s okay for me to visit with them at their dads’ place and vice versa.  Yes, please come in.  Please come visit – peak into a little part of your son’s life when he is not with you.  It is perfectly right that my children spend time with each other and with their friends.  There is enough time.  There are enough occasions.  There is an amazing amount of joy.  Even when I am the only one home.  I’m not lonely.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I feel grateful that these amazing children, friends and family are in my life, filling me up every single day.  I don’t need to be in their presence to feel full of them – although I love being in their presence too.

For those of us who live in increasingly complex family constellations, flood them with love (even when and where you are reluctant to do so – especially when you are reluctant to do so) and see how much love comes flooding back to you.  It is enough.  We are enough.  You are enough.  And in being enough, somehow we become more than enough and delight fills the space, as does joy and wonder.

I and my children may not live or experience a “traditional” family unit, but we fully live and experience the one that has unfolded in our lives, we are grateful for each other and the fullness of our family constellations and find our selves in a beauty and grace to be treasured.