We’re heading into the time of year when a variety of celebrations are held: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, Rohatsu, Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Solstice. It is a time when we usually gather with family and friends. We eat, we talk, we play games, we laugh, we hug.

Over 9,100 Minnesotans have died from COVID-19. There were 723 Minnesotans who died by suicide in 2020. Over 1,000 Minnesotans died from an overdose. So for many Minnesotans the approaching holidays will be hard. Memories come flooding back, providing moments of immense sadness, not joy. When we gather and there is an empty chair, we are reminded of their death.

Having unexpectedly lost my husband of over 40 years at the end of May, I am apprehensive as the holiday season approaches. We’ve spent the last 43 years celebrating holidays together, so him not being here will have a profound impact.

There are also people who struggle during the holidays due to the impact of mental illnesses or substance use disorders. There’s ambiguous loss, reminded of what might have been. There’s the difficulty of engaging when your symptoms are overwhelming. There’s the difficulty of trying to cope with a loved one’s symptoms and illnesses. While we see the beautiful ads about wonderful holidays, they aren’t always wonderful and we might feel even more pressured to make them wonderful and more disappointed when they aren’t.

Especially this year, I have no great words of advice for surviving the holidays. It is going to be hard. But here are several things to keep in mind:

— Sit with the grief. Grieving takes time. It’s not about getting better, especially the first year, it’s about getting through it. Don’t try to “fix” someone. Sit by them; allow them to cry, to reminisce, to be sad.

—Reach in. Whether it’s grief or the symptoms of a mental illness, it’s hard to reach out for help. Reach in, offer something specific – a ride, a meal, some fresh flowers, a walk. Send a note that you are thinking of them.

— Let it go. Now’s not the time to complain, to talk about adhering to treatment plans, to fight over what should happen in the future. Just be a family member or a friend. There will be time to have those discussions in the future. But make these holidays a time to be a family that loves each other unconditionally – that truly cares about each other.

— Say “No.” Not all families are healthy. Abuse exists. It’s OK to say “no” to attending events that will be detrimental to your mental health and safety. We have families of origin and families of creation. Some people have to redefine their family.

— Keep it simple. Ban perfection. It’s so easy to get stressed about having everything be perfect – the gifts, meals, or the decorations. What do you remember most about holidays in the past? My guess is it wasn’t all the extra “stuff” but the people and the feelings and emotions.

I know that the coming holidays will be very different and difficult for me. So I’m planning ahead. I’m writing down the things and activities that will help my grief and my missing him. I’m going to try a SAD light, I’m going to take walks if it isn’t too cold, I’m going to journal, I’m keeping my expectations low and not doing a lot of decorating or gift buying. I’m connecting to the people who know me and help me.

However you are entering this season, just remember it’s not easy for everyone. Be kind to people who seem to be behaving badly or have a short fuse. There might be a reason that they are struggling during this time and an act of kindness could help. — Sue Abderholden

(Editor’s note: Sue Abderholden is executive director of NAMI Minnesota (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families through its programs of education, support and advocacy.)

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