“Maybe having your husband home from the hospital will be a Christmas gift for you.”
“Then it better be an early Christmas present!” I thought to myself.
In that respect, Christmas did come early for us this year, for after six weeks in the hospital, my husband has now been home for over two weeks. That’s truly the best Christmas present ever!
But for many people, Christmas will be a lonely holiday this year. COVID numbers are rising in many areas, restrictions on travel and social gatherings continue, churches are limited in their ability to gather in person for worship and fellowship, family celebrations will be smaller. Physical distancing means we’re all more isolated during this pandemic, and there has been a sharp increase in loneliness.
Charlotte Donlon has been reading, writing, and talking about loneliness and belonging for more than two years, both in her book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other (Broadleaf Books, 2020), and on her podcast, Hope for the Lonely. I appreciate the lessons she’s learned about loneliness through her research, writing, conversations with others, and personal experiences, and welcome her as my guest today.
Reducing Holiday Loneliness
by Charlotte Donlon
Holiday Expectations Can Make Us Feel Isolated
We all have expectations for the holiday season. These expectations have been created by our past experiences, culture, families, faith traditions, and desires. When we know our expectations won’t be met, we can feel very alone and disconnected. And I think we can all agree that our usual holiday expectations most likely will not be met in 2020. Because 2020. Since we know we are walking into unfamiliar territory, we need to be proactive and make preparations. We need to expect seasonal loneliness to be individually and collectively exacerbated.
The Covid-19 Pandemic Has Made Us Lonelier
Several of us are more anxious and depressed because of the losses and trauma we have experienced this year. Mental health struggles can pull us further away from our ability to connect with others and affect how we connect with ourselves.
Many people are newly unemployed or underemployed, so there is additional financial stress when we want to buy gifts for loved ones and have celebrations requiring other resources.
Hundreds of thousands of people have lost loved ones to Covid-19. This will be the first Christmas without a parent or a partner or a best friend. Many people are grieving the death of loved ones, and many are grieving the loss of what they thought this holiday season would look like, what this holiday season should look like.
Because of the continued effects of the pandemic, we might be more disconnected from our places, traditions, and rituals—all things that deepen our sense of belonging. We may not get to travel to our hometowns or favorite vacation spots. We may not get to partake in special activities and gatherings that have formed the rhythms of our celebrations year after year after year until now. Dining room tables that are usually full this time of year will have fewer place settings and less lively conversations. Sanctuaries will have social distancing parameters in place or will be empty because of online services. Community celebrations and parades and performances will be canceled.
How to Prepare for Holiday Loneliness
If we know the upcoming holiday season will be more difficult this year, what can we do to prepare? Dr. Aundi Kolber, therapist and author of Try Softer, spoke to me last year about loneliness and the holidays. She says there are things we can do now to protect ourselves from increased loneliness.
Dr. Kolber believes we are more likely to follow through with a plan if we create it ahead of time. She says it’s a good idea to have two or three safe people on call. Who can we reach out to when the loneliness of the holidays starts to seem too overwhelming? We need to go ahead and touch base with them now and ask if they can be on our list of people to contact when we need to be encouraged and heard. And we can offer to do the same for them. Knowing we have people “on our team” can alleviate the anxiety many have when worrying about potential loneliness.
It’s also essential to think about what brings us joy and create ways to engage those things. What do we want our holiday observances and celebrations to look like within the parameters of this year’s circumstances? Who do we want to be with in ways that will keep us healthy and safe? What foods do we want to prepare and enjoy? How can we celebrate in ways that stir delight within us, even if it’s not how we usually celebrate?
We can also make a list of things to do that nourish us. Maybe it’s listening to a playlist of favorite songs that remind us we aren’t alone in the world. (I have a playlist of several Sandra McCracken songs that helps me!) Maybe it’s connecting with the natural world through daily walks or birdwatching. Maybe it’s keeping favorite seasonal foods in our home and a small bouquet of festive flowers on the kitchen table. Research shows being in nature and putting ourselves in the way of beauty help us feel less lonely and more connected to ourselves, others, and the world around us.
We Need to Talk About Our Loneliness
But most important, in my experience, is that we talk about our loneliness.
Ever since I started reading, writing, and speaking about loneliness and belonging two years ago, I’ve become better at noticing how I experience connection and isolation. I’ve discovered the more I discuss my loneliness with my husband and my friends, the less power loneliness has over me. Being honest about my own sense of disconnection also opens up opportunities for others to talk about theirs.
Talking about our loneliness, encouraging people to talk about their loneliness, and listening with patience and empathy are ways to love and care for others during the holidays. We can reach out to friends, family, neighbors, and members of our faith communities and recreational clubs to see how they’re doing and ask if they’re experiencing increased loneliness. If so, we can offer some of the ideas above that might help them know they aren’t alone amid their loneliness. Talking about our loneliness will also help normalize loneliness, reducing the shame many people feel when they are more disconnected from themselves and other people.
When considering ways to help people know they belong, it’s important to not make assumptions about who may and may not be suffering from loneliness. People with healthy relationships with others can still experience various forms of loneliness. And people who are alone for the holidays might not be struggling with loneliness, at least not in ways one might expect.
Episcopal Priest and author Dr. Lauren F. Winner worried that her family and friends would pity her because she was at home alone for American Thanksgiving. “People reacting with horror to my plans to brine my own turkey-breast is the thing that makes me feel lonely–the pity makes me think no one knows me well enough to realize that I’ll relish some time alone during Thanksgiving.”
Winner surely isn’t the only person navigating the complexities of loneliness. Some may be relieved to skip family gatherings this year because of political disagreements with loved ones. Some may be physically and emotionally exhausted and depleted and are looking forward to a low-key holiday and a few days to rest instead of traveling for annual celebrations.
When we inhabit a posture of curiosity, good things happen. Research studies have shown curiosity actually improves our quality of life. Being curious helps us pay attention to the people, things, and places in the world around us, enhancing our sense of connection. For those of us who are Christians, being more curious also helps us know the fullness of God’s presence in our daily rhythms, relationships, vocations, and more.
Suppose we choose to be curious and open to seeing loneliness as a guide. In that case, our disconnections and belongings might help us learn more about who we are and who we want to be, give us new hopes for our relationships, and offer a beneficial shift in our perspective on the world around us.
We’re All in This Together
Finally, we need to remember we are all experiencing similar upheaval. We are all entering this holiday season in ways that aren’t typical. We are all untethered to some of the traditions and people we have always associated with the holidays. Realizing we are all in this together might enable us to offer more grace and kindness to each other during this strange season. We might just discover we aren’t as alone as we think we are.
The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon explores various angles of loneliness and ways we belong to ourselves, others, and God.
Loose-tie relationships also help us feel more connected to others. This piece about the ways our hairstylists help us feel less alone discusses the benefits of those types of interactions. Maybe we can be more proactive about loose-tie conversations (with our masks on and social distanced!). Research shows even a quick chat with a neighbor or barista can increase our sense of belonging.
Several episodes of the Hope for the Lonely podcast might be helpful:
Loneliness and Suffering with K.J. Ramsey
Writing/Reflection Prompt: In this guest post, Charlotte Donlon writes, “I’ve become better at noticing how I experience connection and isolation.” How do you experience connection and isolation?
Guest Bio: Charlotte Donlon is an author, spiritual director, and podcast host. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University where she studied creative nonfiction. Charlotte’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Catapult, The Millions, Mockingbird, Christ and Pop Culture, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, was published by Broadleaf Books in November 2020. Links to more of Charlotte’s work can be found here. Links to her podcasts can be found here. Information about spiritual direction can be found here. You can also connect with Charlotte on Twitter and Instagram.
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