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Navigate the Holidays with Honesty and Creativity

Pretty mature woman with a photo in her hands looking thoughtfully to the side

“‘Tis the season to be … ” This is where you fill in the blank with the standard answer—the ones that are expected. We should feel joyous, festive, generous, and grateful. Those feelings should motivate and sustain us as we go forward with the variety of plans and purchases for the coming festivities.

But what if your personal feelings don’t match those around you? While the holidays can be filled with love and light, they can also bring sadness, depression, loneliness, and feelings of loss. For many people, the holidays represent expectations that can’t be met, memories that haunt and hurt, sadness that causes isolation and loneliness.

We know that, because of our age, we have experienced more change and loss than younger people. We are more likely to be dealing with physical and cognitive challenges. We may find ourselves with more time on our hands and fewer things to do with it. The expectations from others that we feel joyous and expansive can increase the weight of the season.

For many years, I facilitated grief support groups for people dealing with loss and grief. As soon as the Halloween pumpkin was thrown out and the leftover candy consumed, our groups started to talk about getting through the holiday season without falling apart. Some people mourned the deaths of people close to them. Some grieved relationships that ended painfully. Others dealt with losses related to their jobs, incomes, or way of life.

For people who were dealing with chronic illness, disability, and other challenging situations, the upcoming season felt demanding, difficult, and depressing.

We discussed how people who don’t feel joyous can handle not only society’s expectations, but what also often feels like an abrupt shift of attitude in people close to them. They hear things like, “Come on, you can’t be unhappy for the holidays. You’ve got to get over this.”

Suffering people know what those words really mean: “Don’t make me feel sad when I want to be happy. Don’t make me think about your loss when I want to bake cookies, string lights, and sing carols. Don’t be a drag.”

Fortunately, there are ample resources for people who are struggling. A quick Internet search will bring up articles for getting through the holidays or how to cope with holiday expectations. There are websites specific to coping with grief, chronic illness, depression, and other situations that might sap the joy from the season.

Whatever you may be facing, there are some common helpful approaches:

Think ahead

Begin by thinking forward and communicating with the people you spend your holidays with to get agreement about what kinds of plans and traditions you want to have. Which traditions do you and those close to you observe? Decide which you want to keep, which ones you want to change, and what new ones you might add.

Remember that other people may want different things and may make choices that don’t work for you. It is okay to have different needs and expectations.

Re-assess expectations

Let go of perfectionism. The perfect tree, meal, gifts and other efforts might not be possible. Don’t let others determine what you “should” do for the holidays. Listen to yourself and trust your sense of what you need and then communicate that to the people around you.

Seek support

Connect with members of your community—your family, friends, and members of your faith community or senior center—and ask for support. Make an honest assessment of what you can give and what you need help with. When people offer help, accept it, as uncomfortable as that might feel. Also, consider what you can still offer to others. Remind yourself that needing help doesn’t mean you have nothing to share or give to others.

Take care of yourself

Hard as can it be to do, the basics still apply: get enough sleep, eat healthy food (portion control might be the answer to the endless opportunities to eat well), exercise to whatever extent you can. Exercise relieves stress and always makes you feel better about yourself.

Schedule in whatever brings you inner peace. Make some quiet time for yourself. Listen to music, meditate, journal. These activities can help you stay connected with what you need to center yourself

Get out of your head and into your body

In addition to the suggestions that require thinking and planning, consider some activities that just feel good and benefit from not thinking too hard:

  • Walking—Try a non-destination walk. Use your senses as you move—what do you see, hear and smell?
  • Singing—Put on your favorite tape and sing along. Don’t worry about whether you can carry a tune. Singing is good for our hearts and minds. Singing allow us to feel our emotions and can bring back happy memories.
  • Dancing or creative movement—Dancing can be as simple as just swaying to music, or putting on Aretha and boogying down. Try a Zumba class or go to one of the many dance lessons our community offers. Whether folk, swing, ecstatic, contra, or tango, our city is a great place to dance.
  • Nature—We live in one of the more beautiful regions in the country. Being in nature heals and revives. Join a group or just walk through one of the many parks and feel amazement and gratitude for the beauty around us.
  • Visual art—Whatever artistic experiences you have explored, there are endless arts-related venues and workshops to renew your interest. Get a batch of colored markers and start coloring in one of the endless choices available in adult coloring books. Whatever your artistic interest, you can enjoy the creative process.
  • Listen to music—The research on the benefits of music for our brains is exciting and encouraging. It is easy to find the music you love most and make it a regular part of your life.
  • Laughter—Laughing restores and heals. It is good for our bodies and minds. And it’s contagious—laughing around others can build relationships. Whether you like funny jokes or silly cat videos, there is much to laugh about.

Finally, make a practice of seeking gratitude. Even one daily gratitude can help you feel better. You can share that with others and ask them what they feel grateful for—a gift you both give and get.

Contributor Rebecca Crichton is executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging. For more information, visit