A Holiday Survival Guide for Sad People

Snow on a bush.

This post feels unpopular. Is it unpopular? I think it is. Because the holidays are happy! Why talk about sad things? Why dwell on the past? What is there to be sad about when there are TREES and LIGHTS and MASHED POTATOES?

But maybe that’s the whole point.

Last year, in a small room in the NICU, I held my infant son Afton as he died in my arms. He was one day old. My heart – I don’t even know what to say about it. It will never be the same. Just like that, my life had a Before and an After.

You know how people say, “I don’t know what I would do if (my son died) (my mom got cancer) (my partner left me)?” Well, guess what? Neither do we. Sad People, I mean. We don’t know how we’re even alive, much less how we are getting things done at work and going to friends’ houses and doing our laundry. It’s not like we got any extra special training in the surviving-the-sads department before we graduated from high school. We are not more equipped. We are not “God’s strongest soldiers.” We’ve just landed on the really crappy side of life right now, being forced to figure out how to survive this, and maybe make something good out of it, and so we try.

And we’re doing a decent job at it, I think. A lot of us are. We are high-functioning. Getting our jobs done. Dropping a pretty good fake smile when Susan complains about her salad dressing again. Finding joy in small things like watching YouTube videos of cats knocking glasses over. Just … as an example.

We’ve learned the routines, and we’re making it.

But then comes November and December and two words suddenly loom over our heads: THE HOLIDAYS.

Christmas Tree with ornaments and lights.

Sad People and the holidays are totally awkward together.

The holidays are typically the most happy time of the year, which, in fact, is what makes them very uncomfortable for Sad People.

Our sadness is both magnified and silenced. We see everyone else being not just regular-happy but full-blown-HOLIDAY-happy, and we realize, in specific detail, what we are missing. A partner who will buy you that necklace you’ve been wanting. A Dad who can reach to put the star on top of the tree. A baby who will smile at the Christmas lights. That pain is sharp. It is biting. It will knock the breath right out of your lungs.

If you are not a Sad Person, I hope you can gain empathy for your Sad Friends by reading this Survival Guide. Try to understand. Be gentle with us. Remember our lives right now. We are not Scroogey, not really. We are just very tired and very, very sad, and we need you to love us.

And if you are a Sad Person this year, my heart is so with you. These words on the page get a little blurry when I think of all of you who will stumble upon this post in hopes of a little encouragement, and about the people and dreams and futures that you’re grieving while the rest of the world will go on celebrating. I’m so sorry. I get it. I’m a Sad Person this year, too.

We’re gonna survive these next few weeks, okay? Maybe we can even find a tiny little bit of enjoyment and peace somewhere.

Table with Christmas decor.

Here’s my Holiday Survival Guide for Sad People.

Say No.

Number one, above all else, I think we need to establish that when you’re really sad and your Great Aunt Betty calls you up and asks you to host Thanksgiving this year, it’s okay to say no.

I don’t know about where you live, but in the Midwest, WE HAVE THIS BIG PROBLEM and it’s called Minnesota Nice. And it’s really nice until it’s not nice, because you are doing all these things that you never wanted to do just because you’re bad at saying no and worried about hurting someone’s feelings, but then it all comes out eventually anyway in some form of passive-agressive emotion, and then you realize you should have just said what you meant from the beginning. Here’s a revolutionary thought: you can say no. And you can still be nice about it.

As a rule of thumb, I ask myself: “What would I tell a friend who was in this situation?” If my sad, grieving friend was worried attending a big holiday party with co-workers, what would I tell her to do? I would say, FRIEND. Stay home and watch a movie and order takeout. Take care of yourself.

That’s easy to do, right? Now turn around and treat yourself with the same compassion that you would treat a friend. It’s okay to say no.

It’s Okay To Leave Early.

But sometimes you *think* it’s gonna be okay, so you say yes, you’ll be there! and then you go, and then you walk in, and then you realize: CRAP. This is not okay. I am not okay here. I need to go home and be sad with my dog.

At which time you should remember the second rule of holiday survival: it’s okay to leave early. Really, it is. It’s okay. Your dog probably needs to be let out, anyway, right?

Have An Escape Plan.

Always, always, always. This rule applies to holidays and non-holidays. This can be really simple. For example: don’t host the annual cookie baking party. Because if you host, you can’t leave. If you’re already stuck hosting, plan where you will go (a walk, maybe?) if things get too hard to handle. Come up with a variety of good reasons why you might need to leave a situation. “I’m just not feeling that great, I think I’m going to head out,” is totally valid. It is truth. It’s maybe not the full truth (this holiday work party is overwhelming me and I would rather be with my cats right now), but it’s still truth, and it’s still exactly what you need.

Sometimes when I feel like I might be letting people down in situations like this, I always try to remember that my family and friends want me to be happy and cared for. So when I say I have to leave, what I am doing is just helping them know what I need to be happy (well… happy-ish) and cared for. And that is what they would want – they would want me to be happy and cared for, even if that meant leaving their party a little early.

You’re Allowed To Change Your Mind.

You said you would volunteer for that thing and now it’s coming up and you’re dreading it. Guess what? You are allowed to change your mind. Next year, or maybe the next, you will be a stronger person who can keep their commitments more regularly. You will be the champion. People will depend on you like the rockstar that you are. This year, you do not need to be that person. You need to let others care for you and put some real weight on your support system. You need to be honest when you’ve overcommitted.

You are allowed to change your mind. People will still love you. Pinky promise.

You’re Allowed To Do Weird Things.

You want to put Superman stickers on all your Christmas presents because it reminds of you of your son? Put Superman stickers on all your Christmas presents.

You make the rules. You are fully free to be who you are – sad and grieving and everything else that you are. There is no such thing as “should” during sad holidays. Do what you need to do.

Only Be with The People You Actually Want To Be With.

Sometimes it can be hard to be with family. Or extended family. Or groups of friends at Christmas parties. Or… basically anyone normal. People forget you are hurting, and/or they want you to be happy, and the resulting conversations (“So, you guys are going to have more kids, right?”) can be so completely exhausting.

But you know who it’s awesome to be with? Other Sad People. The ones who get you. Lean into those relationships hard during these lonely holiday months. The shared, cumulative sadness actually has a reverse effect – spending time with these people will fill your heart up and help you know that you’re not alone.

Leave Town.

Full-on Christmas with the Kranks style. Even a road trip an hour away would be a win. We are not running away from people here. People are actually really good and they are trying hard to love us well. It’s just that distraction and tucking in for a few days can be so, so good.

Do Something Special.

Donate time or money in memory of a loved one. Give a gift that your person would have loved. I fully intend to buy Afton a little gift this year. It makes me so sad to think about, but also so happy. I can’t not. I feel like I need to somehow mark his presence in our lives even though he’s physically not here. See also: you’re allowed to do weird things.

Do Something Un-Special.

My vision includes watching really bad funny Christmas movies (I mean REALLY bad – we don’t need any precious Christmas moments to spoil the mood), eating a lot of fudge, and wearing pajamas all day. Byeeee.

Light a Candle.

I fully embrace the cheesiness – there is something just so magical about a flame. Since it gets dark so early now, every night I come home from work and I light a candle. It feels special and sacred and spiritual, and I don’t need to explain anything to anyone. As it burns gently through the night, I am always thinking of Afton and the hope I have that the light of his tiny soul is still alive, glowing bright, safe and warm and held. And that from this broken and harsh earthly realm, mine is, too. Keep that candle lit.

Remember: It’s Okay To Be Sad.

You don’t have to love everything about the holiday season. Not everything is rosy. A lot of it is hard. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be sad.

Remember: It’s Also Okay To Be Happy.

When I was in the hospital, a grief counselor came into our room to talk to us the day after we lost Afton. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed, freshly showered and crying and saying, “I don’t want to get better. I want to be sad forever.”

And she said, “Lindsay, that’s not Afton’s legacy in your life. Afton’s legacy is that you’re going to live a beautiful life in spite of all this pain. You’re going to carry him with you and honor your grief, but Afton’s legacy is not for you to feel sad forever.” And then I cried harder. But that was really helpful.

It helped me understand that it was okay to get better. That getting better didn’t mean I was getting farther away from him, but that I was making something beautiful in honor of my son. And that making cinnamon rolls and decorating a tree and laughing with my family at Thanksgiving won’t mean that I’m forgetting him or that I’m “okay” with him dying. I’m not okay with it. I will always be sad about it. But I’m not limited to sadness. Our happy selves and our sad selves can live side-by-side.

You’re Not Alone. ♡

You’re not alone. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.

Christmas lights.

Love you guys lotso. Thanks for leaving space for these posts in your hearts and blog feeds and inboxes. The holidays are great, and sad, and a great time to take care of our sad people.

To taking care of ourselves and others. XO

I wrote this post for people who have experienced life situations – loss, separation, trauma, grief – that may trigger situational sadness or depression. If you are in crisis, stuck in depression, or can’t see a way out, please call 1-800-273-8255. It’s free, it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it’s available to anyone and everyone. xo

If you want to read more about our journey through grief and love and loss, you can check out my personal Instagram account here.

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