For some, the fall and winter months are the highlight of the year, bringing three cherished holiday celebrations—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s—in quick succession. But for others, scenes of seasonal merrymaking bring overwhelming feelings of sadness, alienation, and hopelessness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “High expectations, loneliness and stress can lead to the Holiday Blues during the season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. In most cases symptoms are temporary, but they can be serious if they last for more than two weeks, leading to clinical anxiety and/or depression . . . [highlighting] a tremendous need for people to reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season.”
My own struggle with sadness has taught me, first-hand, about the transformational power of friends who “reach out and watch out” for others. When I was less than a year old, my parents divorced and my biological father moved to Europe. Even at that young age, a part of me absorbed the impact of the loss. Apart from my summer visits with my older sister to see him, he was mostly absent from our lives. He was a fun-loving host during these annual trips, but I don’t recall many times that he shared about having weaknesses or difficult emotions. As I grew up, I acutely felt his absence and had a hole in my heart the shape of a charming but distant father.
When I was eight, my devoted mom remarried a caring psychotherapist. I had a loving family, but the subtle, chronic ache in my heart from my father’s absence wouldn’t subside. A grief-stricken internal exile was trying to get my attention. I found myself drawn to distant men who, in one way or another, reminded me of my dad. All the while a loyal protector, what I think of as my hardworking reformer part, was telling me I must have done something wrong. It thought the best strategy to address my heartache was to try to make me worthier of love.
In my early twenties, as a graduate theology student, by all appearances I was breezing through life. No one would have guessed that internal boundary conflicts threatened to derail me. That is, not until one evening in Vancouver, when my dear friend Jo-Anne and I were visiting in my apartment. I asked her if she had any ideas about how to make my chronic longing go away. Wise beyond her years, Jo-Anne understood that we can comfort ourselves when we get space from our pain.
The psalmist demonstrated such Spirit-led self-leadership when he said, “I have calmed and quieted my soul” (Ps. 131:2 esv). Jo-Anne handed me a throw pillow from my couch and suggested I hold it as if it were this younger, sad part of myself. The experience helped me realize that my pain was only one aspect of my soul—it wasn’t and isn’t all of who I am. I felt immediate relief, and curiosity. I wanted to find out why this action worked so effectively.
Looking back, I realize that Jo-Anne had taught me how to focus on an internal exile, which still felt the experience of abandonment as if it were continuing to happen. The ability to get some space from, and observe, this troubled part stuck in the past, gave me the perspective I needed in order to pray for it and do something about the grief it was so bravely bearing. To help me focus, I hung on my bedroom wall the last picture taken of my mother, father, sister, and me together. I was the baby perched on my father’s shoulders, and we were sitting on the yellow-carpeted stairs of our yellow house with white scalloped trim. I looked at that picture each night and let twenty-five years of sorrow stream down my cheeks as I fell asleep.
My Spirit-led self focused on my exiled part with curiosity, providing the connection it needed. Ironically, when I focused on my sorrow in this way, the pain took up less space in my soul. As the pain subsided, my exile felt relief and, with the Holy Spirit’s gentle guidance, eagerly embraced a new point of view. I was able to appreciate more fully the blessings in my life, including many wonderful male friends and mentors, and a devoted stepfather who has become a role model for me. With God’s help, I put a gentle boundary around my sorrow so it could settle comfortably in one chamber of my heart. I felt an affinity with Teresa of Ávila who wrote, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.”¹
As the holiday season shifts into high gear, I invite you to set gentle boundaries with the sorrow, sadness, loneliness and grief that may be coming up for you at this tender time of year . . . and to “reach out and watch out” for the struggling loved ones in your life.
Resources to know about:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)—available 24/7
¹Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers, (n.p.: Dover, 2007), 15, quoting John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” (kjv).
By Kimberly June Miller, MTh, LMFT