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By: Jane Milardo, LMFT

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All of us have had the experience of dealing with difficult people. 

It often happens when we’re unprepared, and we’re taken aback by how rude, argumentative, or domineering some people can be. They might be strangers we encounter in public, acquaintances we meet in the course of our day, or sometimes even our own relatives or friends! This is especially the case over the holidays, when most people are under a great deal of stress preparing for Christmas or Hanukkah. The myth about the holidays is that everyone feels celebratory, and everyone is enjoying themselves, but in reality that’s not the case. Many people feel stress about the expectations of the holidays, what with shopping, cooking, decorating, wrapping gifts and mailing them, filling out holiday cards, and entertaining, etc. The list could go on and on! The incessant holiday music everywhere you go makes you feel like you should be happy, even as you feel empty and lost. This year is completely different, since it’s the first holiday season without your spouse. Most likely you were dreading the holidays because the last thing you feel like doing is celebrating.

Fotolia 8653577 Subscription Monthly XXLUnfortunately, family and friends may not have realized that your life has changed completely, and that you are not ready to celebrate yet, especially if they have not lost a spouse themselves. If you don’t feel like being the hostess of the party this year, your siblings or children who usually come to your house for the holiday dinner may need to be told that you’re not up to it. It’s alright to admit that to yourself, and to others. You need time to grieve, and to adjust to how things will be different from now on.

It’s also ok to come up with new traditions. For example, you could go out to dinner as a family. If you don’t really want to cook, that’s what caterers are for. If your family thinks that going out to dinner or hiring a caterer is not good enough for their holiday, suggest that another family member make the meal, and you’ll be happy to attend. It’s important for you to be able to say no, firmly but respectfully.

There may be a friend who thinks you need to stop living in the past, and move on with your life. That attitude actually says more about the friend’s inability to handle your grief than it does yours. They don’t want to hear it or are unable to respond, so they try to shut down your expressions of grief by telling you that you need to move on. If that friend continues to be so insensitive to your feelings, then it may be best to associate yourself with others who do understand, such as the members of a bereavement group. This is the beauty of support groups, everyone shares the same issue.

Perhaps boxes of holiday decorations are sitting in your attic, and you haven’t wanted to take them down. You don’t want a tree this year, and you don’t want to shop for anyone. Being in a mall might feel empty and meaningless to you right now. Don’t do what you don’t want to do. Don’t decorate if you don’t feel motivated to do so, even if others think you should. It doesn’t mean you’re a negative person, it only means you’re grieving.

Friends and relatives who don’t agree with you ought to at least respect how you feel. Grief is an experience that can’t be fully understood by those who haven’t experienced it. But when a friend or relative is critical of how you’re dealing with your grief, you may feel that you need to bite your tongue, either out of loyalty, or fear of conflict.

Fotolia 67029490 Subscription Monthly XXLUncle Harry might be a know-it-all who thinks there’s a simple answer to every problem, and he tells you just to “get over it and move on.” You may think, “He has no idea how I feel!” and of course, you’re right. You can be left feeling bitter and resentful.

Great Aunt Matilda may have a grudge against another member of the family, which she never fails to bring up at every family gathering, and she tries to engage you in complaining with her. Such issues seem petty to you, and you’d be wise to change the subject. She may be irritated, but she’ll get the message.

Remember, their attitudes say more about them than they do about you or anyone else. You may want to keep your distance from people like these for awhile to avoid more hurt feelings, but try to remind yourself that their statements most likely come from ignorance, not malice. Uncle Harry and Great Aunt Matilda simply don’t understand what you’re experiencing.

Keep firm boundaries between yourself and those whose temperament makes you feel more stressed right now. Your priority needs to be taking care of yourself, being gentle with yourself, and respecting yourself and where you are in the grieving process; not pleasing others. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with this idea, as you’ve never really put yourself first before, but now is the time to do so.

Maybe you’re someone who has a hard time saying no, even when you feel strongly about something. Saying no to what we don’t want is part of self-respect. If you don’t want to go to a Christmas Eve party, decline politely, but firmly. Thank the host or hostess for thinking of you, but let them know that for this year, you’d prefer to be at home. Then you can make an alternate plan, something that is comforting to you, like a good book, soft music, a favorite blanket, a movie, or inviting a friend who is also alone over. Doing something nice for someone else is a great way to relieve some of our own sadness. Will you get through the holiday better by staying home, or by being elsewhere? Only you can know that.

Then there are the harried clerks in the grocery store, trying to check out throngs of impatient customers, customer service staff in the department store, who are overwhelmed by extra work and don’t have time to help you, drivers and pedestrians all in a frantic rush to get where they’re going. The streets and all public places seem like complete chaos to you. Feeling the way you do, the smallest lack of consideration by somone could cause you to dissolve into tears in the middle of the mall. Your feelings are raw, and people can be inconsiderate when they’re in a hurry. Why put yourself through it?

You’re under no obligation to buy gifts, cook food, plan a party or attend one, decorate, or put up a tree. The only obligation you have right now is to yourself. If others have expectations of you, and insist you celebrate the holidays like you always have, remind them that your life has changed profoundly, and that you need time to adjust. Suggest alternative plans or new traditions. Let them know what you would be comfortable doing this year, and then stick to your decision. If they become argumentative, excuse yourself and make your exit.

This year, avoid the people who will make you nervous or make you feel worse, and instead seek out the company of supportive friends. Remember, there are plenty of others who feel as you do, people who understand; they’re people who have also lost a spouse this year. You may have met them through a bereavement group. Call one of them up and suggest you make plans together. Or perhaps you might want to suggest the group itself plan a get-together for the holidays, so you can share the company of others you don’t have to pretend in front of.
Be yourself, seek the company of gentler people, focus on your spirituality, meditate, but most of all, honor how you feel. And keep in mind that negative feelings will change in time. They always do. This too shall pass.

If you have questions or comments, email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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