For many of us, this time of year means heading home for the holidays, and bracing for hectic travel, changes to our diet and exercise plans, and finding ways to catch up with all our back-home friends and relatives we don't see all year.
But it's important to keep in mind that a hometown trip for the holidays may not be a reality for everyone. First of all, we each have our own definition of "home," and it may not always be the place where someone grew up. And if it is, there are plenty of reasons why someone might choose not to return there for the holidays — whether it's not economically feasible, their family has moved to a new place or celebrates holidays differently, or they're dealing with something more difficult associated with this time of year. (Even those of us who always make an annual return might not actually look forward to it.) If you know someone who isn't headed "back home," it may be tempting to offer condolences, but if you want to be supportive, Marcia Norman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who maintains a private practice in Winter Park, FL, says that it's best not to assume anything right off the bat.
"There are many reasons — both negative and positive — that might affect that very personal choice," she says. "Perhaps it's a toxic environment, or they are recovering from addiction and feel their sobriety would be threatened with their relatives drinking. Maybe they are saving to go visit for an extended period later in the year. It may be that a grandparent has dementia or is hospitalized, and the trip home has to be postponed. The point is that it is dangerous to make assumptions. Not every family celebrates or values the holidays in the same way the media portrays, and life happens to all of us."
If it's a painful situation for them, you run the risk of further adding to that pain by making any judgments about what they're doing. And if your friend just happens to be taking a sunny vacation (or even staycation) for the season, they might take your well-meaning sympathy the wrong way.
If someone you know is upset about missing out on holiday family traditions, however, there are things you can do to help.
"Just as there is a 'friendsgiving' [for Thanksgiving], perhaps you can create an alternate get-together," Dr. Norman says. However, she cautioned, don't be offended if they pass up the offer to join in your family's celebration: "Sometimes that just adds to any pain and loneliness."
Other options? Get together for something low-key, whether you're watching a movie together or having a game night. The key, Dr. Norman says, is just to connect "in a gentle, non-judging way." No matter what you choose to do, it's about letting the person know that they're supported. "Holidays can be a very emotionally painful time, with constant media reminders to those who don't have a happy place to go," she says.
And again, remember that some people just choose not to go anywhere, not because they have a particular trauma associated with where they're from — maybe where they live now feels more like home for them, and they've got no real reason to travel. After all, the holidays are about being surrounded by love, and you can find that in all kinds of places.
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