6 Ways to Cope With the Holidays When You’re Sad

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for almost everyone. The holidays are supposed to be a time of love and cheer, but for those dealing with difficult family dynamics, loss, or spending the holidays alone, this time of year can be a reminder of what’s missing in our lives.

I know those feelings all too well. I haven’t spoken to my dad since I was 19 (I’m 35 now), and things have been up and down with my mom for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, that relationship really unraveled over the past year, so things are worse than usual. After moving from LA to Chicago in 2010, I’ve spent all but one Thanksgiving in the midwest without family. Not going home is a choice — a boundary that I made for myself to avoid my own difficult family dynamics. Eventually, I reached a point in my life where I couldn’t spend four hours on a plane to put myself in a situation that was less than pleasant. There were Christmases spent with friends, I’ve carried trees home and decorated by myself, and there was even a year I woke up alone on Christmas morning. Whether you’re choosing not to go home or don’t have the option, we can all agree that the holidays are difficult without family.

As isolating as it might feel, if you’re struggling this season, you are not alone. There are ways to make your own memories and enjoy the holidays, even when things are less than ideal. Here are the ways I’ve gotten through the holidays and even enjoyed them amidst feeling less than cheery.


Do something festive

Years ago, after ending an almost decade-long relationship at 29, I found myself alone in
Chicago at Christmastime. I considered not getting a tree but didn’t want to miss out on something I knew would make me happy, so I channeled Lucy from While you Were Sleeping, got a tree, played Christmas music, and decorated my tree. Stringing lights and hanging ornaments is always a fun experience to share with others, but I’m really glad I didn’t keep myself from enjoying something I love.


Stop comparing yourself to others

This applies in real life and on social media, day-to-day and during holidays. Comparing yourself to others is never a good idea, but it’s a lot harder to avoid when everyone’s posting endless happy moments with their families via every social media platform. Scrolling through Instagram is a daily reminder of the fact that (it seems like) everyone else is cooking, baking, watching movies, and partaking in general family holiday merriment. If you find yourself resentfully scrolling through social media, sign off for a few days or remember that a) No one has a perfect life and b) Things can and will change.


Spend the holidays with friends

Back in 2012, I spent my first Christmas without my ex in Chicago and was certain spending the holidays with a family that wasn’t my own would feel really sad, but that wasn’t the case at all. I received an email from a reader who didn’t want to put anyone out, but I think it’s safe to say most of us would be happy to welcome a friend into our home at Christmas — isn’t that what this season is all about? Just like getting the tree by myself, it was different, but spending holidays with friends was (for me) far better than spending them alone.



As someone who didn’t grow up with very many holiday traditions, I didn’t have any to recreate — so I started my own. Each year, I buy gifts for children in need, and last year I put together bags with winter essentials to hand out to the homeless here in Chicago. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or animal shelter, help with a toy drive, or sponsor a family for the holidays.


Think of the positive

You can’t let a few days change the way you look at your life, so use this time to reflect on the good in your life. Reflect on what you’ve accomplished this year and make a list of things you’re hopeful for in the new year too. Your life may not feel perfect, but that’s how it goes, and surely you can find a silver lining or two.


Know that it’s okay to be sad

Whether you’re spending the holidays among difficult family members or alone in your apartment, just accept that this is where you’re at right now, and know that it’s okay to be sad. It often seems as if almost everyone on Instagram is living in a holiday episode of Parenthood (does anyone else love the Bravermans as much as I do?), and when your situation is less than ideal, it can feel extremely isolating. Let yourself feel those feelings of loss and sadness, and as difficult as it may be, try to let yourself enjoy the things you love most about this time of year.

The last two Christmases spent with my boyfriend (now husband) and his family were very bittersweet. I loved getting to be around a family for the holidays, and being a part of their traditions (like matching family PJs and making Christmas breakfast) felt really special — but I still had to work through feelings of loss with my own family. We were married this past October, making this my first holiday season as a part of a family in a very long time. I know how lucky I am to have a family to spend the holidays with, and even though it’s still bittersweet and probably always will be, I have accepted those feelings, and with the steps I’ve listed and staying present and grateful, I’ve been able to enjoy this time too.