Today was one of those days when the glitter of the holidays tarnished “the Golden Years.” Though no one died, no cancers recurred and in fact, I did not give any really bad news, there was still a sense of loss. It seems that the brilliance of celebration can illuminate old wounds. While it is possible to stay vigorous, involved and vital until advanced age, it seems to me that, especially for my older patients, this can be a particularly difficult time of year.
It is a bitter truth that as we age the things that excited us, things that were important, things that we love, slowly pass. This loss takes many forms, but all are painful. Some are obvious, such as the aging of our bodies, lost physical vitality, decreased endurance and a sense of dependence, even if it is just a growing pile of pills. Friends and family, to whom we were close, move, pull away or die. Children grow up and find their own lives, daily sharing replaced by memories, often tinged with regret and guilt. The condo is easier to take care of than the big house, the yard service a blessing, but we miss the time outside, dirt under our fingers and the excitement of digging a treeling hole.
Aging may result in loneliness as we feel more at the periphery of society, instead of its vital core, making us question, in an existential way, our function and purpose. We read more, but it may seem not as much for relaxation or learning, as it is to fill time. We celebrate retirement but find that our job, even if it was a burden, gave pattern and purpose to life and the daily obstacles were a source of mental challenge and pride.
These losses are no more apparent than in December with its lights, parties and cultural declaration of happiness, all amplified by a focus on the laughter, smiles and dreams of youth. It is a time we expect and are expected to feel joyous, thankful and happy. However, with age, that which gave us pleasure and people with whom we shared those pleasures dissolve into fractured memory. We may fall into the disturbing chasm between holiday celebrations of hope, and feelings of emptiness. These feelings can increase, almost beyond our control, resulting in profound sadness and even depression. It is often hard to mine gold in the golden years, but it is never so difficult as when there is so much joy expected by others and by ourselves.
It would be cruel to deny the pain, when the last thing one feels is joy and some moments during the “holiday” season are about emotional survival. A couple of ideas may help. First, understand that feelings of loss during this time are normal for all of us; even the youngest child feels disappointment in the gifts she receives and as we age the disappointments of life pile on and never are they more a burden than at the holidays. If there are deep losses that you mourn, it is not wrong to grieve.
Take a deep breath and avoid adding feelings of guilt that something is wrong because you are not “happy.” Take time for yourself, get the space you need, get exercise, get rest and eat a balanced diet. Try to avoid excess alcohol. There is no law that you must be involved or really “care” about the holidays. Do only as much as seems right for you; take care of yourself.
If you feel overwhelmed, try doing something completely different this time of year. Travel, go to the movies, read a radically different book or perhaps write thoughts of remembrance. On the other hand, try not to be isolated; consider getting involved with a charitable or creative activity such as working in a soup kitchen, helping at church or something crazy like learning to spin pottery. Perhaps just go out to listen to music. For some, the answer may be getting closer to people, but for others it may be taking time to heal and think, secure in the knowledge that the season will pass. Recognizing how tough this time can be, and making a plan to get through, probably different for each of us, can really help.
Especially as we get older, burning Yule logs cannot always warm December cold nights. This is not a simple time of song and celebration; the holidays magnify the complexity of life. Life is not solely about joy, love and achievement; it is balanced by pain, sadness and loss. It is important, however we feel at this time of year, to recognize that we can take care of ourselves and should help each other. By recognizing the needs the season creates we can, step by step, day by day, gently get by.