Great sadness often lurks in the midst of holiday celebrations. It’s been long known that the year-end holidays are – for many people – not just bittersweet but downright bitter.
Florida State University Sociology Assistant Professor Dawn Carr works at the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy.
“As we get older, it’s more and more common to experience major social losses, whether it’s the loss of a spouse; and unfortunately for a lot of older people, they’re sometimes faced with the loss of a child, which is especially devastating. You just never forget those people in your lives. They’re there all the time,” Carr noted.
One need not be older to experience a profound personal loss, Carr pointed out. Most of us will have to endure that first holiday without someone who was very close to us. And while we suffer, others are having a great time further stoking our pain and alienation. But Carr insisted this is no time to keep to yourself.
“And you know, I think the holidays are one of those times where we might be okay living alone a lot of the rest of the year. But you feel the heaviness of that social isolation more strongly during this time of the year. And so that’s why it’s even more important than ever to connect with others and to help feel those meaningful connections to the world around you.”
One idea, suggested Carr, is to make gatherings of family and friends over the holidays – at least partly – an open acknowledgment and celebration of those no longer around.
“One way of actually connecting with others is around that shared experience of that loss. Nobody knows how you feel exactly when you experience a loss, but when they’ve lost the same person, you certainly can connect over that and that is something that help you feel understood by others around you.”
In any case, Carr said, getting outside of oneself is a crucial component of dealing with and mitigating the sense of loss.
“In some of my previous research, it showed that people who experienced a major social loss – and in this case it was the loss of a spouse – and started volunteering afterward, didn’t experience the same kind of mental health consequences that their counterparts did.”
Even for those who have not experienced the loss of a loved one during the past year, Carr insisted the holiday time still has a lesson to teach us.
“It should be a reminder that we need to pay attention to all the important people in our lives and take advantage of the time that we do have with them. And that can be a source of enjoyment, saying, ‘I’m really going to take advantage of the time I have because we never know the time we have left.’”
That may be one of the most precious gifts of all.