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Finding Holiday Joy Amid the Grief

If you've lost a loved one or suffered a setback, the holidays can feel hollow. Learn how to experience joy despite it all.

Let Go of Perfectionism

This is no time for idealized visions and big pressures, Lewis advises. "Nothing can live up to expectations of a Norman Rockwell holiday. You can put a lot of energy into making your vision come true, and very often it doesn't. Nothing is ever going to be that rosy."

Be open to what spontaneously occurs, Lewis says. "Then you won't feel the pressure to turn every holiday dinner into a picture postcard. Be in the moment and awake to whatever happens in the moment."

So the cranberry sauce doesn't taste quite right -- so what? Focusing on flaws makes for an unhappy experience, she explains. “If you can just be present and taste the food you spent four hours cooking, you will notice that much of it tastes really good.” If your son has a bad haircut, just let it go. Enjoy your conversation with him and everyone else at the table. “If you allow yourself to experience it, the moment will be fresh and happy and joyful," says Lewis.

Transform Old Traditions

Because we love our traditions, change doesn't come easily, notes Rauch. "It's important to take stock of favorite old traditions like sitting around the fireplace in your big old house. Now you're in a small condo, alone after losing your spouse -- and the family is scattered across the country."

Examine the most special aspects of that tradition, she advises. "Maybe that's when the family shared stories. This year, line up a family conference call instead. Think about what makes traditions special -- then come up with creative ways to make a new tradition to fit your new situation."

When a parent is seriously ill, it's important that the whole family brainstorm on how to spend the holidays, notes Rauch. "You may not be able to travel or have all the relatives over for the big dinner. Talk about the traditions and what matters most to everyone -- and the best aspects you can salvage."

You might watch Christmas movies together. Have the big meal earlier in the day if a sick parent is particularly tired. If the kids love their cousins' swimming pool -- but you can't travel this year -- find a pool in your own town. "Be creative," Rauch says. "Find ways to celebrate."

Say 'No' If You Need To

Creating new traditions is part of healing -- but it can be hard, says Apollon. "When a mother, father, spouse, or child dies, your heart's not in it. You don't feel like doing it.

"Do what you can," Apollon advises. "Maybe you want to go somewhere so you won't be at home during the holiday. If you want to leave town, take a vacation. You've got to do what feels right for you."

Scale back on decorating the house if you don't feel like it, she adds. "Find joy in doing things in a smaller way."

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