“Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!”—Dr. Suess, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Memories are powerful things. They can fill us with joy and laughter, or they can cut us to the core with deep sorrow. While the holidays hold many joyous memories for me, they also hold some of my most painful ones as well. Not only did both of my parents die very young, but they also both died in the month of December.

One of the most intense memories that I have of my dad is hugging him goodbye on Thanksgiving day. He was terminally ill, and I didn’t want to let him go. You just never really think it will be the last time, but something inside me knew…this was it.

In 2008, celebrating Christmas morning with three small children running about with Christmas Pjs on and reindeer antlers atop their heads was most definitely the last thing I wanted to be doing that day. I was still in shock from my mom’s sudden death and had just attended her funeral only two days prior.

Years later I would experience that deep pain again in the form of separation and divorce. In my latest book, Common Threads, I share the added reasons for me now that the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year. In a chapter aptly named “Holiday Hell”, I get raw about my intense struggles with the holidays following my separation:

As grueling as that experience {loosing my parents} had been, this year was simply unbearable. Could I just go to sleep and pretend Christmas never happened? Tear the month off the calendar and pretend it was January? My kids still give me a hard time about how we moved all the clocks up in the house for New Year’s Eve when they were young so they thought they got to stay up until midnight. Yep, I’m pretty sure at this age they would figure out if I literally skipped an entire month. -Common Threads 

Like it or not, life does goes on and the holidays do not wait for us to have our life in order.

Why can the holidays be difficult?

There are many reasons why the holidays can be difficult and, in some cases, lead to clinical depression.  Working as a family therapist in the months of November and December, what I hear in my office is often a stark contrast to the glossy magazine covers and holiday images in the media. Marriages fighting to stay together, deep family divisions, and parents that long to hold babies that will not be.

I am certainly not trying to be the Grinch and steal all your holiday cheer, but this is often a very overlooked topic. In a society that wants to only focus on positive emotions and bury negative ones, we need to get OK with experiencing all kinds of emotions even during the holidays. Let’s look at some of the issues impacting people during the holidays and how you can best help yourself or someone you love through this season.


For some families, they have suffered the death of loved ones since they last gathered around the table for a holiday.  My heart is tender for some of my closest friends this year as they will be sitting down for the first time and looking at that empty place missing a parent. That is never easy.  Even when the loss has been years, some years are harder than others. My heart also hurts for all the parents I have counseled with over the years who have suffered the unthinkable pain of the death a child. This time of the year is especially difficult for these families.

Job losses, divorces, and loss of health status

Loss is not always related to death. There are also the losses that unless you have personally experienced them you may not realize the impact. While we are busy preparing for celebrations some families are in the middle of some of the most difficult times of their lives. Many of these things are so commonplace that we forget they create deep pain and that holidays often amplify the circumstance.

  • Job losses create feelings of personal failure as well as the financial pressures.


  • The holidays place a lot of pressure on families who are trying to navigate separation and divorce. This has certainly been the case for me over the last three years. Trying to keep holiday cheer and traditions can be extremely difficult and painful for adults and children. Just seeing decorations or hearing holiday music can send a cascade of emotions in play.


  • Our health is certainly one thing that we easily take for granted and the holidays can emphasize these health issues as people come to grasp with not being able to do the things they once enjoyed with their families.

Chronic Depression

For people who struggle with chronic depression, the holidays can induce guilt like no other time of the year. As we are constantly marketed that we are supposed to be happy and joyful, it just reaffirms to those experiencing depression what a difficult time they are having. Attending events and pretending to be happy can be exhausting. It is difficult for some people to understand how people can be depressed amidst all the festiveness of the holidays.


Not all families can be together for the holidays due to geographical distances. This is a strong reality particularly for many of our military families who due to deployments endure many holidays apart.

Expectations and Hype

 At this time of the year, we are constantly shown images of “perfect families” gathered around the table for meals. What if your childhood was anything but wonderful? What if your adult family hasn’t matched your expectations? These images can cause distress as we compare ourselves to ideals that are more than likely not attainable.

How Do We Cope?

Feel all the feels!

I am not a trendy girl and generally learn all the latest “meme” language from children. However, the therapist in me does love “feel all the feels”. What this means is don’t try to hide your feeling from friends and loved ones. If this season is difficult for you let people know how you truly feel. Don’t worry about “ruining” other people’s holidays these are your personal feelings. Sharing your feelings with friends or family who can share your burden with you can be a huge relief. Often depression is the result of suppressing and stuffing our true feelings in and putting on that mask of “I’m fine’.

Embrace Change

Whatever you are going through if you just can’t do the usual traditions, them don’t do it! Change things up and start new traditions. This may be difficult for other family members, but you must take care of your own emotional needs. Letting go of the old ways does not mean you are forgetting or dishonoring it simply means that it is time for a change. And…if you need to, pull a John Grisham and “Skip Christmas”, I hear Cancun is very nice this time of the year! (P.S. …Take me!)

Honoring those we Love

There are many ways to honor those we have loved and lost. These are just a few:

  • Make a special ornament
  • Make a donation or volunteer with a charity they loved
  • Write them a letter
  • Create a special photo collage
  • Leave a place for them at the table
  • Make a special area with photos and light a candle at gatherings
  • Take a special arrangement to the cemetery

Patience with Yourself

Acceptance of change or grief in our lives takes time. In our fast food, instant gratification world, we are expected to just move through things at lightning speed. The problem is that the heart was not designed to move at this speed. Healing takes time and we must experience the deep pain in order to come to the other side of healing. I tell all of my grief clients that it is like standing on one side of a river and needing to get to the other side. There is no bridge and the river is filled with alligators and all kinds of miserable creatures.  You know yourself, go at your own pace and don’t feel pressure to pretend that you are Ok if you are not.

Patience with Others

It is important to recognize that everyone does not experience situations or grief the same.  Keep your advice and judgement out of conversations with people going through difficult times. They just need for you to listen and to know you are there. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out because you don’t know what to do or say. Send a “thinking of you” card or just call them and admit you don’t know what to say or do but you are there. These things go a long way!

Seek out Professional Help

Talking to a trained professional can help alleviate many of the feeling that you are experiencing. Clients are often relieved to find a space where they can say whatever they want and not worry about offending anyone. A mental health professional can also help you determine what is normal and what may need other interventions such as medication referrals to help you on your healing journey. You can find providers by contacting your primary care doctor or your insurance company who can help you find resources in your area. 

We all have a little child inside of us that continually wishes for happy endings. I know I wish that I had my parents for longer, but over the years, I have learned to be thankful for the time that I did have them. One thing we can count on in this life is that we are going to face many challenges along the way.  Despite all of this, the human spirit has this incredible ability to experience deep, painful emotions and heal.

This holiday season let yourself feel all the feels because that is how we know that we are alive and we have loved deeply. As Dolly Parton’s character Truvy stated so well in the movie Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”. Wishing you all peace and healing this holiday season. Namaste

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Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC 

Melissa Collins Harrell Author

Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. She is the author of Common Threads: Why the Answers to the Present Lie in the Past.

The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.