What to do When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

by Peggy Shafer

It’s a common expectation that the holidays are cheerful and that you should be too.  In reality, the holidays can be anything but cheerful for many people.  Here are three situations that can be especially challenging:


Psychologist Guy Winch, Ph.D addresses the negative health outcomes that accrue from chronic loneliness and suggests that people anticipating loneliness during the holidays take actions that involve scary risks. No, not skydiving or BASE jumping, but asking acquaintances or even distant relatives what they are planning to do on the holidays, thereby creating an opening to ask for an invitation. He writes that lonely people often underestimate the love and welcome available to them. Scary? Yes. Like many endeavors that lead to positive change, letting someone know that you’d like to be included in their holiday plans takes courage and determination.

Grief and Loss

A set of articles in the online “Grief Toolbox” contains a list of things to do during the holidays, most of them familiar and practical—be compassionate with yourself, try to find enjoyable things to do with people, let others do things that will lessen your stress and anxiety—but the most important step to take is to find ways to remember and talk about the person who died. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to try to be relentlessly cheerful when you are with others. Though it is commendable to put some effort into being good company, it is equally important to acknowledge your loved one and share stories about when he or she was part of the celebration. Sharing memories of the person you lost and acknowledging the grief you are suffering allows others to support you and to share their own memories of the person you’ve lost.


If you’re simply feeling stressed about the holidays, here is a resource that can help:

The Coping With Holiday Stress Worksheet: Creating My Own Plan for A Happy And Healthy Holiday Season.

Interview with Jan Bucy, MA LMHC

by Anne Ihnen

This morning, I sat down for a talk with Jan Bucy, MA LHMC, a Seattle psychotherapist who, for ten years, also worked as a professional organizer.

How she got started
Jan’s professional organizing business got started at a time when she had cut her practice back to half time, giving herself a semi-sabbatical. She heard about an elderly antique collector who needed help cleaning out a house that was filled with a combination of valuable antiques and things that just needed to be given away. Jan spent 6 months on this job, eventually hiring 20 people to help her. “It was really fun; I learned so much”, she told me, “and this is what started my business”.

Over the next 10 years, Jan worked with a variety of people, doing both big and small jobs. Many of her clients were people who had become overwhelmed for one reason or another and who could no longer tackle the daunting task of sorting through their belongings and getting their living spaces in order. Often, things got out of control due to a death or other major life transition. Jan enjoyed helping people untangle, and she “really liked the process of helping them find the meaning in their things”.

What she learned
Jan quickly learned that when she ran into resistance, i.e., when a client had difficulty making a decision about one of their belongings, if she could help her client discover what person or experience the object was attached to, it helped the client tell their story and grieve the loss inherent in letting go. One retired client who couldn’t bring herself to give away a closet full of business suits was able to give them away after Jan spent several hours with her, listening as she shared stories of her professional life. Having her stories heard helped this client find closure, relief, and peace.

Jan told me that this kind of work has to be done in stages, just like grief work. Most people could spend about 3 hours sorting and clearing, and Jan always started with the easiest things to give away. “You build up a tolerance, a muscle for getting into the deeper stuff that carries more attachment”.

I commented that Jan’s clearing and organizing sounds like a form of therapy, and she agreed, noting that doing this work helped her learn the importance of remembering that she can’t “fix” people. She saw that both her organizing work and her work as a therapist are about being with her clients where they are, helping them tell their stories, pointing out what the client can’t see or realize, and helping them heal.

After 10 years, Jan closed her business and went back to being a full-time therapist. The organizing work is physically demanding and not something she could keep doing.

Integrating lessons learned
Jan has taken the lessons she learned as a professional organizer into her private therapy practice, especially when she works with a person experiencing grief or a person who is living with someone who can’t let go of their things.

Jan highly recommends the book Organizing from the Inside Out, by Julie Morgernstern. This practical and useful book isn’t just about cleaning clutter, it also talks about life transitions, the speed at which we live our lives, and both the external and internal realities that contribute to a cluttered or disorganized space.

In a piece she wrote a few years ago, Jan makes the connection between an organized space and creativity:

Do you remember being young and painting in a room full of other children? If you had looked around you would have seen that every picture was different and an expression of the moment. It was not a comparison or a judgment. It was an expression from the inside out. That is what creative organizing is….allowing an image of what you want , how you want to live , to take shape. One step at a time, allowing a place of beauty and comfort to emerge. Persevering towards your greater good, one step at a time. Letting go and forgiving yourself for your missteps. Starting anew again and again.

That’s Exactly How I Feel

by Peggy Shafer

Most people who suffer catastrophic loss say that during the years following the loss they have encountered few, if any, people who are able to comprehend the array of powerful, and sometimes conflicting, feelings that haunt them long after the tragedy occurred. To come across one person who “gets it” seems a miracle; to come across an author whose experience and insights reflect their own is equally rare and, to at least a small degree, comforting.

No doubt, each of us has had the experience of reading a book, or a passage from a book, that evokes this thought: That’s exactly how I feel, and for a few moments, a day, or even longer, we carry with us a feeling of connection, of being understood.

Sonali Deraniyagala’s unforgettable book, Wave, deals with the emotional aftermath of losing her two young sons, her husband and her parents in the tsunami that swept 280,000 people from six nations to their deaths in 2004.

What makes her deeply sad story bearable to read is the author’s raw honesty, her elegant, simple prose and the poignant and unsparing portraits of the loved ones she lost and, after six years of wincing away from remembering them clearly, the wholeness she reclaims as she begins to welcome her memories of the family she lost. She writes, “By knowing them again, by gathering threads of our life, I am much less fractured…I can recover myself better when I let in their light.”

Most anyone suffering the loss of someone whose absence feels unbearable would find comfort in reading Deraniyagala’s Wave, and would likely think, over and over again while reading it, “That’s exactly how I feel.”