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Holidays and Healing: Why are they such a trigger?

The Easter holiday yesterday had me thinking about holidays in general--how difficult they can be for anyone who has left an abusive or unhealthy relationship--especially where children are involved. Co-parenting requires splitting of time and holidays with your abuser, so there's the obvious loss of time and opportunity to create memories around these special occasions with our kids, but it's deeper than that. Holidays (or any day that is special or has significance for us) will become just another tool for an unhealthy or abusive person to inflict pain.

There are a lot of obvious ways an unhealthy or abusive person uses holidays to hurt the other parent--refusal to allow participation in religious traditions that were fine in the marriage, but suddenly "go against their values", insisting on time with the children during times that are important to the other parent, even though the date/time has no significance to them, or not returning the kids at the court ordered or agreed upon time, to sabotage plans or demonstrate control. As a parent in the middle of these painful years, it's easy to put your finger on what sucks about the situation or holiday. "Easter sucks this year because my kids are with their other parent", and it's easy for people to see and offer comfort. But what about 10 or 15 years down the line when your kids are grown and you find yourself in a grouchy ass mood, dreading Easter (or Mother's Day, or Christmas, or...) and wishing you could just wake up one day, having slept through the entire thing, and you don't have to think about it again. Until next year. Ugh.

Holidays are a yearly trigger. Remember all those Christmases when your kids were little? How much time you spent making it magical? How you did all that yourself because your partner was a selfish, uninvolved prick? How much you loved the traditions you were passing along--and how sad you are to think your kids were so little they probably don't even remember those Christmases? How after the divorce, you became secondary and his traditions meant even on the years you did technically have your kids, you didn't--until he was ready for you to have them?How into their teen years "doing Christmas" meant whenever it was convenient for them to stop by and get the gifts you have for them? I hate Christmas. I hate that I hate Christmas. But here I am and I've come to a place where I just have to accept and embrace that. It will always be a hard, triggering day for me. Having realistic expectations helps a little. And not having people in my life tell me how I should be celebrating or feeling "because it's Christmas!" helps as well.

I think that's the takeaway I'm trying to leave you with here. In the context of someone who has left an abusive relationship and is sharing or has shared custody of children with their abuser, holidays are likely to be one of the biggest triggers for you as the years go by. They remind you of all the things you lost--the time, traditions, memories you didn't get to make with your kids, the relationships with them that you wish you had. Holidays can be hard for so many different reasons. The societal pressure to have a "Merry Christmas!" is all around us. You can't just go around telling the cashier at Michael's to shove it up her ass when she tells you "Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!"

But you can give yourself some grace and let yourself be okay with hating Christmas, or your birthday, or the third Saturday in April, if that's your thing. You don't have to pretend you're jolly and bright if you don't feel jolly and bright and you certainly don't have to explain yourself to anyone. And if you're out there hollering "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Mother's Day!" to folks and you get a response that doesn't seem to return the energy, don't try to cheer them up or say dumb things like "Who doesn't love Christmas?!" Lots of people don't...and that's okay. If you have to say something, you could try "I'm sorry that you're feeling that way, but I understand" and then just move on. If you love someone who struggles with holidays--listen to them and honor their wishes. They may not even be able to articulate all of the reasons they're struggling but giving them the gift of acceptance and space to feel however they are feeling is the best gift you can give them--holiday or not.

If you do struggle with holidays, for any reason, you are definitely not alone. You don't have to pretend. I think it will get easier. I almost didn't cry last Christmas. Maybe next year I won't cry at all! I probably will though. I'll keep you posted.

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