3 Ways to Find Joy in Spite of Christmas Ghosts

How do you celebrate the holidays when you're haunted by sadness and regret?

The former residents of Paradise, California (about 50 miles from where I live) must dream about the Camp Fire inferno that destroyed their town.  They're mourning the loss of homes and businesses, safety and security.  Some have lost livestock, pets, and family members.  They might be wondering, "How can we celebrate Christmas now?  What is there to celebrate?"

Like the victims of this devastating fire, many of us are haunted by ghosts as Christmas draws near.  Not apparitions, but memories and feelings of hurt, heartbreak, disappointment, and hopelessness.  We've lost family, friends, marriages, dreams.  I can't help but think of my dad, whose birthday is the day after Christmas.  He died as a result of the cruel degenerative neuromuscular disease ALS more than twelve years ago.  I recently got news about another loved one that makes me anxious and sad, and I cannot resign myself to it.  I'm haunted by the wish that things could be different.

Struggle is part of life, so I'm sure we have this in common.  And that's actually helpful when it comes to living with Christmas ghosts.

Find a friend you can talk to.

There's an old saying, "A burden shared is a burden halved."  It might sound trite, but it's true.  We can sympathize with each other's hurts because we've experienced them too.  Your friend doesn't need to be in your exact situation in order to listen and commiserate, and he can lift your spirits just by being there.

Find a way to volunteer your services.

Here's another old saying by Saint Francis of Assisi:  "It is in giving that we receive."  We've all been taught to help others and to share unselfishly, but with modern fMRI technology it's been proved that helping others activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.  Altruism is actually pleasurable for humans.

Volunteering connects you to others and strengthens relationships.  This in turn relieves stress and depression.  It provides a sense of accomplishment, which will bolster your feelings of self worth. Helping another person can take your mind off your own worries and provide meaning and purpose, which will improve your outlook on the future.  Generosity not only helps others, but increases your own health and happiness.  It's a win-win situation!

Find something... anything... to be thankful for.

"One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well."  Okay, that one's a challenge.  Yes, it's pretty easy to feel thankful when the sun is shining and all is right in your world.  Why shouldn't we feel grateful when our needs and wants are met?

The real test is being grateful even when life gets hard, especially when you're hurt by an event you don't deserve.

We need to change our response to adversity.  But how?

It's a choice, and something that takes practice.  To lose your home and livelihood in a wildfire, but still be able to appreciate the outpouring of help from friends, family, and thousands of strangers is an art.  To sit nearly immobile in a wheelchair and yet express gratitude to your caregivers and interest in their lives and families is a triumph.

I can mourn my dad and the long decline that ended in his death, or I can be grateful for all he did for me, for our relationship and the good memories I have of him.  I can fret and fear this new situation involving another loved one, or I can give thanks for his honesty and for how much I'm going to have to learn because of this challenge.

When my husband and I had to give up our house after the 2008 economic downturn, we could have decided to blame others and become bitter and mired in our own mistakes.  Instead, we chose to be thankful for the opportunity to start over and to find out how little our happiness depended on where we lived or what we owned.

Can we possibly give thanks for our Christmas ghosts?  Losses and disappointments make us better people if we gain wisdom, faith, and compassion as a result.  As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, regret is a springboard for change.  I pray that the fire victims, and all of us, will let this holiday transform us.

There are dark shadows on the earth,
but its lights are stronger in the contrast.

Charles Dickens

Updated December 2022


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