A challenging time of year

For families dealing with transition, Christmas can be difficult to handle: here are a few tips to get you through

Richard Routledge of BC Families in Transition says Christmas “can be the most stressful time” for families.

For families dealing with transition, Christmas can be difficult to handle: here are a few tips to get you through

Richard Routledge still remembers the woman who called him in tears a few Christmas Eves ago.

Her husband had just left her and she wanted to know: how could she explain to her young children why there would be no presents — the man had left them with nothing and had frozen her accounts — and why Daddy wouldn’t be with them this year?

“She told me, ‘I just didn’t know who to call, and I don’t know how to do this. I can’t make this work,’” says Routledge, the executive director of BC Families in Transition. “We talked for a while, and I told her we would help her and work with her as long as it takes.”

The story isn’t a rare one to the non-profit organization. In the 34 years that BC Families in Transition has been in Victoria, the group has helped approximately 10,000 people per year with everything from legal advocacy and counselling to education, access to community resources and helping families find the reset button. But of all the seasons Routledge and his team serve the city’s clientele, none are quite as charged as Christmas.

“We’re bombarded with these images of what the holidays are ‘supposed’ to look like, and so there is so much pressure to perform that it can be the most stressful time,” says Routledge, who has been in the counselling field for 27 years. “Really, Christmas is a time of grieving — and yet it’s also the time when everyone is trying to put on a happy face and pretend everything is perfect, just the way it looks in the movies.”

While January is the busiest month for BC Families in Transition — many couples wait until after the holidays to file for divorce, for example — Routledge still has some words of advice for making it through the season with sanity in tact.

Decline invitations to be guilty

With pressures from family, friends, kids and colleagues, one jovial invitation after the next can quickly become a burden. Instead of saying yes to everything, Routledge suggests getting choosy.

“There is so much pressure to perform beyond what is reasonable, whether that means creating the best decorations, buying everyone the most expensive presents, attending all the parties we’re invited to, or trying to make everyone happy,” he says. “Eventually, we have to say, ‘No thank you,’ and not feel guilty about that.”

Though this step can be the hardest at first, Routledge points out that children who are able to watch parents say ‘no’ guilt-free will grow up knowing where their own comfort limits are, too. And, in the long run, everyone will be happier.

“Commercialism really obscures the view of reality, but people are starting to reject this idea that we should be spending and doing beyond our means,” he says. “It can be a slow process, though, so have patience.”

Honour your grieving time

Sometimes, you have to give yourself the gift of grief, says Routledge. While it can feel easier or stronger to “power through” the holidays with a smile, that message of phony fun creates more tense feelings within ourselves and those around us.

“Be honest with yourself, and honour yourself and your losses enough to allow that grieving process,” he says. “It’s not something that can be rushed, but if we give ourselves space and permission to feel that sadness it relieves so much pressure, rather that pushing it aside to stay ‘happy.’”

Create new traditions

Nothing softens the realities of loss more than highlighting the new. Though it will be “different,” Routledge suggests encouraging children, family members or even just yourself to develop new traditions, no matter how small, to look forward to.

“Life is a fundamental journey of gains and losses, and the holidays are a time to reflect on the years that have had real losses, but also the new wisdom gained, and the new things that have been brought into our lives — maybe even because of those losses.”

Give (up) more to get more

While passing Christmases and blended families can pile on those traditions and expectations, Routledge suggests making some important cuts.

“Sometimes we have to give up more so we can get more, and it can mean cutting some of the things you kind of liked for the things you really loved, so you can get so much more out of that,” he says. “Make some decisions about what really holds meaning to you.”

Enjoy a pie — the chart variety

Balance plays an important role this time of year against already hectic schedules, but Routledge says it’s often a time when couples will put time together or time for themselves on the backburner, and avoid bringing up things that need to be talked about in an effort to keep the mood amicable.

“If we think of a pie chart, there’s time for work, time for family, time for spouse and time for self,” he says. “Of all those, self usually goes first, then time for spouse, but that’s when things start to unravel.”

The extra demands of the holidays often accentuate these choices, Routledge says, but aim to balance out the pie, guilt free, even if it only means taking 30 minutes for a solo walk, or setting one evening aside for a date, or de-stress night.

Lighten Santa’s hot air balloon

December can highlight all the “needs” and “wants” of the year, which can also inflate overwhelming feelings of stress. Routledge says it’s the most important time to consider what’s being held onto that you no longer need — especially the emotional variety.

“Picture yourself in a hot air balloon, and you’ve got your stereo, and your bed, and your stresses, and your baggage, and pretty soon you realize that balloon can’t float anymore,” he says. “You have to decide, ‘What is it time to get rid of?’ Because soon you won’t be able go anywhere.”

Stay true to yourself

While the holidays can be laden with “guilt mines,” Routledge says the best way to step over all of them is to stay true to yourself — aim to budget within your means, do what you truly feel excited to do, and say ‘no’ when you know you should.

“When people talk about regret, the one thing I hear a lot is ‘I could have avoided these losses if I’d just listened to myself.’ But that’s life,” says Routledge. “We learn as we grow, but we don’t always realize that as we are living through the lessons.” M

BC Families in Transition relies largely on public donations to fund its programs, and is in need of donations for the new year. To learn more or access resources, visit bcfit.org or call 250-386-4331.

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