Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Finding The Healing Potential In Holidays: Unexpected Ways

If you were a bit thrown to learn that Thanksgiving was on for this Thursday and that the Holidays were closing in fast – you were not alone.

Given the unprecedented destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the continued sacrifices of our military, the escalation of international strife, the threatened fiscal cliff and the personal storms most people face, it has been difficult enough to negotiate daily life- much less, think about the holidays.

Do We Really Need The Holidays Now?

Yes. We need the holidays because if we can look past the details and avoid getting trapped in expectations, holidays hold great healing potential. In ways we hardly expect, they provide many of the ingredients recognized as essential to the stages of healing and recovery after traumatic events.

Physical and Psychological Safety

We know that in the aftermath of trauma and disaster, people are most comforted and stabilized by familiar networks of support. The Holidays provide this.

  • In the case of survivors of Hurricane Sandy, we know that families embraced each other and gathered together earlier than expected and may stay together longer than planned. For them, as well as for other familiar networks be they a military unit, a medical staff, evacuees at a shelter or a few students far from home, a Thanksgiving dinner has the potential to stop the clock, take them off task and offer physical and emotional sustenance.
  • No matter how many hours they have worked, cried or served together, to stop and gather with the mutual goal of celebrating and giving thanks reduces the isolation and alienation inherent in the challenges they face. The shared experience adds to their cohesion and the sense of being held together. When the festivity ends – the benefits and memories do not.
  • Food plays a major role in holidays. As such it is as emotionally healing as it is physically gratifying. Emotionally charged events, be they wonderful or traumatic, are remembered and encoded in the senses – the body remembers. As such, food is evocative of powerful memories. While it may seem small, the long awaited fragrance and taste of stuffing, pie, or turkey can re-awaken a memory and provide a restorative feeling of home, family, country that no words can provide.

Remembering and Mourning

While holidays stir treasured memories and invite new ones, they can also be reminders of years of unhappiness, the devastation of loss or the absence of a loved one. As such they offer painful but important possibilities.

  • It is very understandable that on Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season, many people report being “thankful but not happy.”
  • While everyone grieves in their own way and their own time, it is worth considering that holidays often unexpectedly evoke many different feelings.
  • You may be moved by the laughter of your children even as you mourn a parent you greatly miss. You may treasure the friends and family who have gathered to help you re-build after the storm; but feel bruised by the loss of the family home. Owning and enabling a mix of feeling is empowering.
  • An important gift that families and friends can offer each other at the holidays is to bear witness. The freedom to share pain in a way that is understood and contained by the compassion of others makes it easier to bear.
  • While families and friends may face considerable hardship and loss together, it is often only at the holidays (when everyone is sitting in the same place at the same time) that there is the opportunity for all family members to “ weigh in” on their version of what happened, the impact, the joy, the regret, the memory.
  • Children need to be included in the discussions of family experiences. The situations and the family stories need to be explained in a way that makes sense for their age. These family stories can be edited and expanded as children develop, as the years pass. There is always another holiday.
  • Because holidays make room for family narratives, they reduce the intergenerational legacy of unspoken pain.

Connection in Time

One of the impacts of natural disaster and traumatic events is to disrupt the continuity of time. Traumatic events freeze us in time. The past feels lost and the future feels impossible. The story of the life we knew has stopped.

  • Holidays reinstate order. They arrive no matter what has happened. They intrude with a reminder of past, an invitation to look beyond pain in the present, and the promise of a future.
  • A dramatic example of this was the famous Christmas Truce during WWI when in the midst of war on a Christmas Eve, in an unplanned display of humanity,the shooting stopped and was replaced by the exchange of Christmas Carols between enemy armies.

If holidays can offer a physical and psychological respite, a community of mutual sharing, a revival of treasured memories, a place for grieving, a time for a family narrative and a reconnection to our own story – they will help us heal.

Holidays won’t end all pain and suffering but they can help us restore what we need- to look forward with hope.