Special occasions (or the festive season) apart

heart sad split family christmas expat

So, in late November whilst I was idly wandering around a supermarket, some jaunty Christmas music of old started playing over the sound system.  Quite suddenly I felt tears spring up in my eyes.  Where on earth had this come from?  I was quite surprised and, no it wasn’t because they were playing Slade in November. I was sad.  It was a pain in my chest, a heaviness in my heart, almost grief-like. It was deep pain about not seeing my family and having the family Christmas that maybe I had envisaged, but never acknowledged.  Whilst I wiped my tears, I thought that it had never occurred to me for one second that I might feel like this, after all I have spent several Christmasses away from family, and we had never indulged in the idea of a big family Christmas during this Covid year. 

“Yes”, I later said to myself, “I  know we have done this before, but this year has been a bit different, to say the least, and it doesn’t mean the sadness is still not there.”  I realised that I probably had some feelings there I didn’t realise, yet along acknowledge. And then it also struck me, if I felt this way and didn’t know about it, how might the rest of the family be feeling too? 

heart sad split family christmas expat

2020 has certainly brought its fair share of disappointment, sadness, grief, worry, fear and lots more.  And now, on top of that we have the festive season.   

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah or any holiday, the festive season is upon us and, this year is obviously not a straightforward one for anyone, particularly when it comes to celebrations.   Navigating these traditionally family focused and very social celebrations without loved ones can be a daunting prospect whether forced into due to Covid this year or even if you are ‘used’ to it as a seasoned expat.

alone sunset feeling sad and emotions

My surprise at my reaction was partly because, we have celebrated several Christmasses, Birthdays, Easter, etc without family in the past.  Some were through choice – a good time to take a long-distance holiday, whilst others the decision was through necessity as travelling back from Australia or Costa Rica (especially with 2 little ones) just proved too daunting or expensive. This year however, we, and many others, will be confined to our homes or certainly not very far from them.  We may be in Sunny Spain (and not that far from Blighty), but the rest of our family will be celebrating together or separately in the UK.  For me, at least, that brings up mixed emotions, and if I am honest, some fear for our parents’ safety, and also some jealousy – I want to be there too!  (Let’s not even talk about how we are struggling with the kids’ understanding why some of us are choosing to travel/spend Christmas together and others are not).  

All in all it is not quite the Christmas any of us had planned and that inevitably can lead to some sadness and mixed emotions, even if we have done it before.  

plug into emotions conscious expat living

But that is the case for so many this year, whether an expat ‘stuck’ in your adopted country or in your forever home. It has led me to think about what can we do to recognise that this festive season will be different but also make it the best we can – for us and our families.  But before rushing to yet another thing to think about, the most important bit is actually feeling what we are feeling right now and making space for it, not pushing it away (I speak as a previous expert at the pushing away bit).

Why do we have to do that?  (Yes, I have asked myself that many times too)

Well, if we don’t allow ourselves to feel or plug into the sadness and grief, then we also numb ourselves to joy and contentment too.

Our first Christmas spent in Costa Rica, 5 years ago, where we lived in a lovely gated community with a pool to ourselves (as all our neighbours were away), it was hot and sunny, on paper, the perfect holiday getaway.  But having lived there just a few months and without any family or friends close by, for me, it felt far away from an idyllic Christmas location.  I woke up Christmas morning, probably with a set of traditional expectations, but found myself feeling empty and sad. I brushed it all aside and decided to shake it off, it was Christmas for goodness sake! I would take matters into my own hands and go for a run (now, if anything should have raised any alarm bells it should have been that. Me? Running on Christmas day?!) I can see now that I was trying to get rid of my feelings, to be happy and jolly for everyone and myself, but, shock, horror, not much luck.  By late morning, having opened many presents and spoken to family, I went for my next escape option (at the time),  I suggested we start on the buck’s fizz and continued as the day went on.  Another favourite and tried and tested effort to try to push and numb the sadness I was feeling.  It didn’t quite end in drunken debauchery or an argument (that I recall!), but it could easily have come out sideways that Christmas day. That said it was certainly more of a blur than it would have been if I had dealt with it a bit differently.  Not the end of the world maybe, but numbing and repressing our feelings can have serious consequences for our mental and physical health and leaves us in a state of feeling stuck or numb every day, not just at Christmas.

Sitting with our emotions is simple, but it is not always easy, but is so important for us to do.

So, let’s give it a go.  

Close your eyes for 10 seconds and ask yourself: 

How do you really feel right now?  

For me, I feel tears spring up again and, I know there is a deep sadness there and probably more to come as we do the Christmas countdown, particularly without family and loved ones and those we have lost this year.  I, for one, clearly have more feelings to feel.

1 –  Identify how we are feeling about Christmas or our Birthday (any relevant event) this year: Disappointment?  Grief?  Fear? Excitement? (esp if you don’t get on with your in-laws!) Relief? (less stress of Christmas) Jealousy? and everything in between.  It is important that we do acknowledge these feelings for ourselves and maybe try and tease them out with our children too.  I have been an expert at stuffing mine away, only for them to jump out at me, or at others (usually at my husband or the kids) at some point in the future.   

2:  Have a conversation about how we feel.  Whether within your family or close friendship group, we can talk about what you had planned or hoped for and how you feel about it all this year, especially with our kids. Open questions like “What did we think we would be doing for Christmas this year?”  Or starting with “I am feeling really sad about not seeing grandma and grandpa this year for our celebratory meal, how do you feel about it?”  Can open the doorway for conversations, and yes, sadness, and most importantly for us all, empathy.  Now, this might sound a bit like you are provoking the proverbial bear, surely that sounds like torture, but research has shown that talking about our disappointments makes it far more likely that we can deal with them and develop the resilience that we all want for us and our kids.  Journalling about our feelings helps us acknowledge how we feel and get out of our heads, it has certainly helped me hugely to just free write whatever is in there, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not.

hearts bright graffiti on a wall

As the child psychologist Dr Laura Markham (Aha Parenting) points out:

“Allow all feelings, yours and your child’s.

Notice them. Accept them.

Acknowledge them as just part of being human.
Seeing and accepting our emotions can help us see them for what they are”.

What otherwise might happen is that it all comes back to bite us, whether it is this festive season or beyond.” 

As psychologist Carl Jung, famously and wisely stated:

“What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” 

Now I can see, I totally resisted in Costa Rica a few years ago and think I am in danger of doing the same this year too.

So in the midst of all the festive preparations, the last thing we might think we have time for, sitting and breathing, is exactly what we need to do. Only then can we move through our feelings and give ourselves, and others the empathy that is needed.

But after all that, how can we still have a meaningful and connected Christmas / Hanukkah / festive season/Easter/Birthday whilst being far away from our family and friends?

More on some practical ways to do just that in our next post, here.

I would love to hear from anyone about how they are feeling this time of year, whether you are a seasoned expat and are used to spending Christmas or big occasions away from family or it is your first time this year ………….please do comment below.

Thank you.

Heart – Photo by Kelly Sikkema, Alone – Photo by Alec Douglas, Plug in -Photo by Kelly Sikkema, Heart graffiti – Photo by Renee Fisher

11 thoughts on “Special occasions (or the festive season) apart

  1. Really interesting Em and you’re absolutely right. I’ve spent the last few months proclaiming that ‘I’m one of the lucky ones that hasn’t really been effected by Covid’ and, whilst to some extent, that’s true, I think it stems from guilt. We haven’t lost jobs, caught Covid, lost loved ones to the virus etc and so in many we are fortunate. However, if I’m honest, I have struggled in other ways and I think I need to acknowledge that.
    Thank you for another really thought provoking blog x

    1. Thanks Sarah, greatly appreciate your comments.
      Yes, I totally can relate to what you are saying about feeling like the lucky ones and it can feel selfish acknowledging anything other than gratitude, but it is certainly a mixed bag. I certainly didn’t realise how much sadness and grief was there and we have certainly been extremely fortunate this year.
      So appreciate your comments! X

  2. Loved your post Emma around hopes being dashed of gathering with loved ones at Christmas and the need to acknowledge that sense of loss.

    I haven’t had a UK Christmas since 2005 and all of the intervening Christmases away have created a huge swell of nostalgia for Christmas ‘at home’. The friends and family, the food and the familiar traditions. I guess all expats know that feeling well! Absence makes the heart grow so much fonder… Now I’ve been back in England since January and have had plenty of time to get used to the idea that this was not going to be the quintessential Christmas I’d been longing for. None the less, it took a while for the reality to sink in that, despite having nearest and dearest within a car ride away, I won’t be able to see or enjoy time with any of them! The only consolation is that we are all in this together and staying apart for all the right reasons.

    1. Thank you Vivi.

      15 years is a long time and only to have your hopes dashed for this year, makes it all the more painful. As you say, the only real consolation is that we are trying to keep our loved ones and the wider community, safe. Here’s hoping we can all have the Christmas that we crave in 2021 (or maybe Christmas in July like they do in Oz!)

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