by Alan S. Wolkenstein, MSW
We are entering the series of holidays I call the Holiday Triangle. We are looking at the time from Thanksgiving, to Christmas or Chanukah, and finally to New Year’s Eve. The holidays come so effortlessly in succession that we can completely miss the opposite side of their celebration. We have embraced this triangle with the intentions of joyfulness, happiness, and fulfillment. Within this process, we have done so many people the disservice of expecting happiness and fulfillment for us all. Not so.
We know that false-positive expectations of the season, over commercialism, and a frenzied, almost neurotic need for extravagance has done us little good emotionally and spiritually in our quest for personal satisfaction. It is also a time of loneliness, isolation, and deep sadness for those people who are experiencing loss and grief for individuals who are no longer with them. My experience is that many people are in various stages of the loss-grieving-lamentations sequence of coping and are poorly served by the extremes of happiness and joy of this time within the triangle.
These individuals can actually feel a greater sense of social isolation from our cultural support systems, because they are, in fact, engaged in deep grieving. We have people who lost someone or an important part of their life while experiencing the holidays. There is little in the way of social sign posts for them to follow in their losses and grieving.
There are so many of us for whom the losses occurred in the past, and grieving may have been successfully completed, but the losses are somewhat reawakened by the intensity of the holiday triangle.
There are even more, I suspect, that never fully completed their grieving, and now the holidays bring back the losses and deep grieving never having become a part of their own transformation as persons.
We experience losses, we grieve and lament, and eventually we are transformed by the memories of our personal experiences. Without this transformation, our pain and suffering can remain at the levels of our initial losses. Although time may heal all our wounds, we must do something with this time if we are to live our lives fully and deeply, love again, care again, and grow to our potential.
Yes, there are some semblances of community-based awareness of their needs. For example, some hospitals and social service agencies frequently sponsor an event to honor, reflect on, and collectively lament our losses in a protected group environment. However, many people are unable or unwilling to share their losses in groups, so they grieve alone and painfully, especially during this Holiday Triangle.
I would be remiss if I did not reflect on many feelings people have during these times of the distances between what is and what could be, and what isn’t and what was not in their families. Whether real or imagined, these distances can cause people to be and remain lonely, isolated, and fearful instead of “in the moment” and enjoying and appreciating what is and could be. It seems that working with a guide or mentor can have positive results in clarifying and enhancing the enjoyment we can feel instead of the disappointment and losses we experience.
We still have the potential to be a truly can-do community-society. We can accomplish so much once we become actively aware of our human needs, understand their implications, and apply our skills, knowledge, and compassion. Now is the time to plan for the many who cannot enjoy this Holiday Triangle. Now is the time to know that in ourselves, we can do this…
Come, let us plan together.
Professor Alan S. Wolkenstein is a 30-year veteran in graduate medical education. Trained in sociology and psychiatric social work, he is a retired Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He was Director of Behavioral Sciences for primary care physicians in graduate training at the Aurora-University of Wisconsin Medical Education Group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and completed a year as Professor of the Behavioral Sciences Consultation Service for the School of Nursing, Concordia University of Wisconsin. Alan is a 19-year survivor of cancer. Alan has a very special perspective on life based on his being a senior and having a long-term cancer remission, and continues to serve as a guide and mentor for men struggling with cancer.