[Dys]Functional Holiday Gatherings

It was during my time, working in hospice, that I realized life events either bring out the best in people or the worst. In life, and in death, it is there, we realize the structure of a family.

“You two are in your twenties and just standing there; it’s time for you to start being responsible and helping out,” she began, over-judging the age of the two teenage girls. The younger of the two girls ended-up in tears. “Oh, that’s right; go cry in the corner,” she continued.

“What is the problem up here?” The mother of the girls exclaimed defensively. “It is not your place; it’s inappropriate!” the mother sternly told the overbearing, young woman. Patronizingly, the young woman responded, “I am so ashamed of you as a mother. I am so disappointed in you as a mother.”

Thanksgiving, this year, was much like any family event. Our immediate and extended family gathered, together, to share in our gratitude. This event, just like others, was strung together with the usual off-the-cuff comments and bickering. It’s not only expected, it’s accepted; that is, unless it turns into a “Blow-up.”

“The Holidays can create a perfect storm,” said Sarah Fowler, licensed practical counselor, with whom I was fortunate to work with, years-ago, in hospice. She is a counselor and owner of Compass Rose Counseling in Pueblo West. “People often put themselves in positions that jeopardize their mental health.”

These events can be brought on by underlying issues; a reminder of unhappy times or even things desired; there can be financial stress; there, simply, are difficult people; and to add to the mix, there is usually alcohol exaggerating emotions.

The counselor said it’s important to set boundaries ahead of time, asking yourself, ‘What will that boundary look like?’ It might include behavior or certain topics, then practice setting those boundaries. “All too often people feel obligated to engage or respond. No response is a response or simply say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”

What if someone says something that is offensive to me? “You have the right to your own response. No one knows what is going on in your life.”

Is it okay to be mad or feel angry? “It is okay to feel angry; however, how we choose to respond is up to us.” Some other options might include asking to continue the conversation, privately, away from others; or, simply stating, ‘This isn’t the time or place for this; I will call you on Friday to discuss this further.’

Fowler suggested having an exit strategy if something is said or you feel uncomfortable. This might include excusing yourself from a conversation or situation; having your significant other rescue you, ‘If you see me alone with..., come get me,’ or even, ‘It’s time to leave if...’

Sarah points out, expectations can be different for each person; and therefore she encourages hosts and hostesses to set boundaries as well. This might include giving guests a vision of what the holiday looks like for him; e.g., ‘There won’t be any alcohol this year.’ ‘If there is any arguing, I will politely ask you to leave.’ ‘The party will end promptly at...’

Will I let my family down, ruining tradition, if I don’t attend our Christmas gathering? “Ask yourself: ‘What do I want the day to look like?’ and get rid of anything that doesn’t contribute to it. If the day looks stressful, don’t go.”

What if I think it might be stressful, but this might be the last Christmas I have with my mom since her diagnosis? Some alternatives to ‘I’m going; I’m not going’ might include: ‘I’m looking forward to hosting my own Christmas this year, so I’m only going to be able to make it for an hour.’ ‘Maybe we can get together for lunch this next week.’ ‘Can we have dinner on Thursday, before Christmas?’

My husband and I sat down and asked ourselves, ‘What does Christmas look like this year?’ We are going to stay home, play cards and eat crab legs, creating our own family traditions.

Gina Paradiso is a healthcare speaker and writer. She is passionate about service to others and quality patient care. Gina attended Regis University and Colorado State University-Pueblo. She can be reached at ginaparadiso@gmail.com.