En español | Facing this year's Jewish High Holy Days without her family, Judy Stein figured she had two choices: Cook a traditional Rosh Hashanah brisket for herself, or go rogue. She chose the latter.
"I chose to create a meal that had absolutely nothing to do with what I normally eat for that holiday,” says Stein, 85, a retired management consultant who lives in coastal Maine. “I ate a lot of raw oysters."
Certainly oysters are a nontraditional choice for Rosh Hashanah — they are definitely not kosher. But Stein had a purpose: not to “wallow,” as she said, in her grief at being apart from her two children and six grandchildren because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the pandemic limiting travel and gatherings, many are in the same boat. It's easy to despair over the possibility of being alone. But there are ways to foster joy in the season and mitigate loneliness if you find yourself on your own, says Stein, a volunteer with The W Connection, a national widow's support group, and others who have either experienced holidays on their own or counseled those who have.
One common piece of advice: The only way through a difficult time is forward. So, below are five suggestions to help you keep moving ahead this holiday season. And if you find yourself stymied by anxiety or despair, seek help from family, friends, support groups or mental health professionals.
1. Simplify your expectations
Let go of your assumptions about holidays and any stigma around being alone. There's nothing shameful in this year's holiday dinner being takeout and a glass of your favorite sparkling wine rather than a four-course meal. There might even be some relief. For example, there won't be any arguing with your sister-in-law over whether gravy is OK for your vegetarian diet.
"For a lot of people, the holidays are overwhelming not just emotionally, but physically, because we have that ‘White Christmas’ version of the holidays in our heads,” says Patrick Evans-Hylton, 55, a chef and food journalist in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Evans-Hylton lost his husband, Wayne, about five years ago and now is a board member of the National Widowers’ Organization. “The older I get, I realize that we have to do things on our own terms."
2. Build anticipation and make a plan
Often the run-up to the holiday is more delicious than the day itself. Even if you're going to be by yourself, you can still create excitement.
"To me, it's all about anticipation and planning your needs to want that day to be a fun day,” says Kate Gorman, a psychotherapist in Nyack, New York. “What do you really love to do and [can] give yourself permission to really enjoy on that day?"
Save a new project, movie or book for the holiday. Or, if it's important to socialize, plan some Zoom calls or online games. Attend a virtual or outdoor worship service. Or buy some stationery and spend the day writing to the people that you love, Gorman suggests. Plan something that's distracting and fun to look forward to.
"One of my friends said that she always takes a special hike,” Gorman says. “You can't make your mind go someplace that it doesn't want to go, but you can make a plan that is very nurturing to yourself.”
3. Be open to magic
Whether you're on your own for the holidays because of pandemic restrictions or because a partner has passed away, it's important to be open to the little joys that “magical thinking” can bring, says Joe Walko, 54, a Pittsburgh writer and volunteer with the widowers association.
Walko, who has written books on grief and growth, including Cairns: The Beauty and Power of Finding Your Way, says that after someone dies, we often suspend disbelief and see comforting signs of our loved one in a butterfly, a rainbow or perhaps a bird. So welcome those moments of joy if they arise. “Maybe for the holidays, you give yourself that little extra allowance for magic,” Walko says.
Gratitude also has healing powers, says Laurie McAnaugh, a certified life coach in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. “A gratitude practice can really be helpful to rewire those neural circuits that are maybe habitually negative,” she says. For example, try a gratitude journal. It doesn't have to be burdensome: Just take a minute or two each night to jot down an action, person or moment that made you grateful that day.
4. Get out there
Don't wait for the phone to ring. Reach out to those in your family, your neighborhood or your community who might also welcome company, a phone call or support. Virtual holiday celebrations are likely to be popular this year. If you normally celebrate with friends and family but won't be able to gather because of COVID-19 restrictions, make sure to schedule a Zoom call to bring everyone together.
For many, this year of muted holiday celebrations will be a temporary trial, but for others, the holidays are always lonely.
Each year, Stein serves Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen. Evans-Hylton organized collection bins in restaurants to collect food during the holidays for an outreach center. He'll also go Christmas trick-or-treating, dropping off pint jars of homemade cranberry sangria to the neighbors.
"One of the things you get in return is socialization, because all of a sudden you're going to get all of those neighbors, or a good portion of them, knocking on your door throughout the holidays and bringing you a little something and standing outside…. And you've started a new tradition right there,” he says.
5. Go off script
Evans-Hylton might be taking this to the extreme: He's headed to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. While that might be beyond your COVID comfort zone or financial ability, think of it as a day of freedom from traditional commitments and do whatever the heck you want.
Plan a day trip. Sleep until noon. Binge your favorite show. Or, like Stein, indulge in nontraditional foods. Her next goal: planning for New Year's Eve, a night when she and her husband always had a black-tie party. To do it, she'll rely on a tenet she taught as a consultant: What would make the day a personal success?
"I'm going to have to do what I've got to do,” she says. “I have to set those criteria for myself and figure out how to get through it."