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First Christmas After Separation

QUESTION: I am a 24-year-old single mom of an 18-month-old boy. This is our first Christmas since I separated from his father, and I'm getting depressed. I just don't seem to have the "spirit," and I'm worried about getting through Christmas without being a family. I feel overwhelmed with sadness.

ANSWER: It is natural for you to grieve the loss of the family during this holiday, which is chock full of family associations and memories. Christmas brings up our deepest fantasies for fulfillment. And most people who are NOT going through a difficult life transition experience a "let down" after Christmas because the unconscious wish for fulfillment rarely meets the reality of the situation. This holiday is one of many "firsts" which will come up during this initial year of separation. But sadness and regret by no means imply that you are abnormal nor that you have made a mistake in judgment! You will experience loneliness, but you may find that leaning on others will help ease your pain.

If your own childhood memories reflect tensions and disappointment in family relationships, depression is likely to be compounded during this time. Or, if your childhood was relatively happy, you may yearn to return to a period of grace when you felt taken care of yourself. And since Christmas has so many associations to children and magic, it appeals to the child in us that wishes for something truly magical to occur - especially when we are going through hard times. All of this can contribute to feelings of depression as you experience the family break-up more concretely during this period.

Begin to consider you and your son a family! Shop for a tree and warm the hearth of your home together. It is all right to allow time for sadness. In fact, plan to remember good times that occurred and accept the tears for the lost promise of a relationship you thought would last but didn't. Crying helps to release sadness so that you can begin to build a new sense of family. Tell yourself that by next year, you will be feeling better. But begin this year to establish some new rituals or continue old rituals with your son that will help you connect with each other through the holidays.

Call friends and relatives and invite them for an evening or afternoon of tree decoration. You may not feel high in spirits, but it is important that you create a Christmas for the two of you as a family. Make spiced cider and put on music. Keep it short, if you like. Two hours of threading popcorn to hang on the tree is enough to stimulate the neurochemicals that can be aroused through behavior towards enjoyment, even if you are not rejoicing. Do not expect yourself to be joyous, but create an atmosphere of warmth to aid your healing. "Heal" is derived from the Old English "hoelan," which means to synthesize or "make whole." Allow this season to be your season for healing.

Schedule your time over the holiday week so that you have a group activity. Christmas caroling groups may form through your local YMCA or other community organizations. Consider joining with carolers, and continuing activities you have enjoyed in the past. Stay in touch with friends and relatives. With your son, visit public places that are decorated, even visit with Santa, if it is convenient for you and not overly stressful. Keep your schedule simple so as not to fray your nerves, but sufficiently full to help you stay connected with the parts of the holiday season you have enjoyed.

Make plans so that you are not alone on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Be sure to plan a ritual with your son, and if he is with his father, make plans to be with friends or relatives. If this is difficult, consider a community project which involves you in giving to others at this time. Remember that your separation makes you eligible for future happiness you did not have in your previous family with your husband. It is natural to have regrets at this time, but realize that this first holiday represents a period of transition.

As the New Year approaches, you might also consider a ritual for acknowledging sadness and considering the changes you would like to see in your life in the next year. Perhaps taking a piece of paper and writing down the things from the relationship that were good and you want to keep, and the things in the relationship that made you unhappy enough to leave on separate pieces of paper.

Burn the pieces of paper that represent the things you want to let go of, and put the things you want to keep in a special place for safekeeping to reflect back on throughout the year ahead. Include things you want to bring into your life as well. You might do this ritual with a small group of friends where others are also contemplating things they would like to leave behind and New Year's changes they would like to embrace.

You are in the process of re-establishing a new definition of family. Do not underestimate the power of group activity and rituals during this holiday season. Rituals can offer us ways to digest grief that has no words and can help us to cope with sadness and loneliness. And connecting with groups during times of transition serves to carry our spirits when our hearts are too heavy for spontaneous rejoicing.

Remember, even Scrooge, in his lifelong depression, opened his heart when connections with people were finally re-established!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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