Deciding About Having Tough Conversations During the Holidays (We Vote No)

If there’s one topic that can polarize a conversation, it’s the idea that we need to have direct heart-to-heart conversations about a loved one’s future over the holidays.  

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Here’s a little nugget of truth: I wrote that sentence two days ago and couldn’t think of anything else to write that would possibly be diplomatic or helpful.  After chewing on it for awhile, I think this topic is one to approach with the mindset of how can we make something hard a little bit easier. How can we let holidays — this time of year and other times too — be a celebration?  

You may have heard some rumblings on the interwebs or even overheard strangers talking about how kids and parents need to have certain conversations sooner than later…Conversations about what you want toward and after the end of your life, where the important paperwork is located, who will make decisions if you can’t, and et cetera.  You can download questions, visit websites with conversation starters, even buy workbooks that walk you through the five wishes straight on ‘til morning. As a dear friend and advocate once told me, all of us need to get our affairs in order.  I am one-hundred percent behind the idea that these conversations need to happen.  

Now, there are two camps on the topic of whether or not to initiate family decision-making and tough conversations over the holidays.  For some of us, the inner compass needle points straight at we’re all together so let’s talk about this stuff now.  And for others, the obvious is why the heck would you bring up such a heavy subject over the holidays?  We could spend days analyzing how personality types, birth order and family history all play into this.  What I see is that the holidays are a time when some families get together physically but the main worry is how they’re going to connect emotionally.  And to be honest, it is really hard for families to make decisions together when holidays are involved and emotions are naturally heightened.   

In light of many of us really wanting to do good by way of our families, here are some ideas to keep in mind for whatever holidays you celebrate:

Avoid Turning Holidays into Emotional Holidays

When I was working in hospice, the daughter of one of my clients had had numerous significant losses in the month of February.  It was tragic really. She’d gone through a divorce in February, she’d once been assaulted in February, she’d had major surgery and the list went on and on.  Now her father was dying, she’d lost her job and guess which month it was? February. It was no wonder that she dreaded February every single year.  

In grief counseling, we’d say this woman had a lot of emotional holidays in February.  An emotional holiday can be a day or even a time of year when you (and your body) experience something strongly emotional because of a past experience.  Usually we’re talking about loss whether it’s the day someone died or the birthday of someone we love who is no longer there. Have you ever woken up on a certain day, in a certain fog or funk but you weren’t sure why?  And then later you realize it was the anniversary of someone dying whom you loved? This is the phenomenon of the emotional holiday — that our minds and bodies can associate memories with certain times of the year, down to the day, and feel those emotions that were felt when the memory was made.  Emotional holidays can correspond with actual holidays too.  

How do emotional holidays get easier?  By accumulating positive experiences AKA celebration, connection and good food.  Maybe take some time to read the room and check in with people. Will insisting on having a difficult conversation (even if it’s loooong overdue) create an emotional holiday?  Will it lead people to avoid tough conversations with you in the future? Maybe a better option would be to plant the seed of hey, I want to have this conversation with you not-right-now but sometime.  

Palliative Care for your Emotions

When you have a chronic condition that will stay with you for the rest of your life, you can qualify for palliative care.  Palliative care focuses on comfort and treating the symptoms when a disease cannot be cured. As a patient, you direct your own care with the main goal not being to “fix” the disease but to get on as best as possible with what is.  Palliative care is very holistic in that practitioners consider your situation from all different lenses: physical, psychological, social and spiritual.  Palliative care is you not trying to change what is and instead taking the best care possible of you.

This is the same kind of approach we need for our emotions over the holidays.  So often we try to “fix” our emotions or “fix” the emotions of family around us.  We fall into old patterns and ways of being around our siblings that we would never be with our friends in the outside world.  This, in turn, also fails to give our families the opportunity to know who we really are at this moment in time.  

A friend of mine was riding in my car once.  She said something I was curious about early in the drive.  It seemed like something important but when I asked her about it a few minutes later, she said it wasn’t important and she didn’t want to talk about it.  I was a little miffed but had to laugh when she replied, “That was five minutes ago. I’ve changed.” It was FIVE MINUTES (that’s what I thought in my head).  But she was right — people change.  

Sometimes we don’t expect our families to change.  We have preconceived notions going into the holidays that we are going to have the same emotions and same reactions that we’ve had every single time we’ve gotten together.  It’s an emotional holiday, after all. Someone is going to set us off (our brother is going to make fun of us for being a feminist), push our buttons (our sister is going to insist on some tradition we didn’t remember existed) and we’re going to end up with an emotional hangover (and in therapy).  

But what if we took a palliative care approach to our emotions over the holidays?  What if instead of trying to manage our emotions (“fix” them) and getting frustrated with not having the conversations we KNOW need to happen, we just acknowledged that we’re feeling scared about where things could land or sad that we feel disconnected?  What if, instead of trying to make every holiday perfect, we decided to make our emotions comfortable? Frustration, we could say, I’m making you a little bed right next to mine because I know you are as overwhelmed as I am.  Or maybe, I’m sad that I’m realizing there are things I don’t know about my family….gonna honor that and maybe see if I have enough energy to ask more questions.  Maybe our emotions deserve a little palliative care, especially this time of the year.

Calm Down, Drink Some Water

When I was little and woke up in the middle of the night, it seemed very distressing at the time!  Of course, I decided that I should obviously wake my mom up too.  Her response? Go to the bathroom, get yourself a drink of water and go back to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep!  Did you drink some water?  No.  Have a drink of water and I’m sure you’ll go back to sleep.  It worked every time.  (Thanks Mom.)

In stressful outdoor situations, we have the same motto.  Are you lost, frustrated, exhausted and not sure what to do next?  Here comes the refrain: Calm down, drink some water.  

Now it’s the holidays for some of us.  We’re back with family. We can’t sleep because of something a family member said.  We miss our friends. We are out of our element even though it is the environment we grew up in.  I’m projecting, but how many of us forget to cut ourselves some slack during family holidays? Research shows that breathing through our noses decreases anxiety.  Oxygen dissipates the adrenaline in our blood stream and calms us. Drinking water makes us both breathe through our noses and hydrates us. PS — being hydrated actually decreases symptoms of depression.  It may seem simple but perhaps a tool we forget over the holidays is to calm down, drink some water.

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I once had a woman say to me, I just told my family, “You’re all coming to my house on Thanksgiving and we’re all going to fill out our Power of Attorney forms.”  I was stunned and asked her how that went over.  Just fine, she said.  I’m an attorney and they know they have to listen to me.  

Okay, so we’re not all in that position and, truth be told, taking on a big topic like end-of-life wishes or the chance that we’ll all need a certain amount of physical help someday is a delicate subject.  With a certain amount of tact, yes, these conversations can take place around the holidays but goodness knows, not everyone responds well to being told they have to talk about something deeply personal before they’re ready to.  And perhaps accumulating positive experiences may lead to better conversations in the long run.  

Maybe it’s my line of work but it seems like there were a lot of people who thought 2019 was already hard enough: We’ll just be glad when it’s 2020, they said. This year was a challenge.  In that case, give yourself permission to be kind to yourself, respect the emotional holidays, give your feelings some palliative care and for goodness sakes, calm down and drink some water.   

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Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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