These past few weeks have been undulating with emotions. The faux festivity required by commerce kept butting up against the daily reports of viral menace and mayhem leaving me without any desire to send holiday cards or buy presents. I tried to get into the Holiday Spirit, but I just couldn’t.

Truth was, I was feeling very lonely. I was missing my husband, missing my mother, and missing familiar activities and friends that used to be key components of celebrating this Holiday Season. Too many people who I loved are no longer in my life.

Antidote for Loneliness

Loneliness is an interesting state of consciousness. I have experienced deep loneliness while in crowds, aware that the physical proximity of others was not having any impact on addressing my ache for connection and acknowledgment. And I have sat alone in nature, mesmerized by ocean waves, experiencing the complete embrace and deep connection to the Earth’s rhythms, aware that there was nothing that separated me from all living things.

My loneliness this time was more of the existential disconnection from warm memories of family, typically reinforced by ritual and special foods, with my current physical limitations due to diet and restrictions from COVID. So, I took ACTION.

The Cats Who Came for Christmas

On the spur of the moment, I decided to address my loneliness by seeing if there were any pets available for adoption at my local shelter. The phrase “on the spur of the moment” is misleading. I have been thinking about adopting a cat for several years now, after my last one succumbed to kidney failure. But I just never got around to actually doing it. This time all the planets were aligned, and I showed up for my “meet and greet”.

The result was that I returned home with not one but two cats. They had bonded while in the shelter, and I couldn’t see separating them. I also came home with a changed attitude. Now I had purpose and my former routine was interrupted. Purpose and interruption are definitely antidotes to melancholy!

Depression or Grief?

Still, I found myself experiencing moments of tearfulness and occasional intense sobbing. In exploring what this arose from, I realized that I was grieving. I have written elsewhere about the difference between grief and depression, but it bears repeating.

Grief is most often described as feelings of emptiness and loss; depression is described as being unable to imagine ever being happy or enjoying things. While there are more distinctions, what has been most pervasive for me over these last two Christmases has been the emptiness. The joy I used to experience in making Christmas cards and sending notes was completely absent this year. I had no desire to put up a tree, since I would be the only one to enjoy it. All that effort seemed hollow and false, especially since I craved authenticity and connection.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Because of all the unsteadiness I was experiencing, I decided rather than blindly succumbing to what I “should” do or what I have “always” done, I would give myself permission to just observe my thoughts and then, after pausing, decide whether I would act on them.

I don’t know if you can fully appreciate the irony of my following the same advice I had been giving out to patients for the last 20 years. Truth is, it is awfully good advice and worth following!

Ritual and habit have their place. Ritual elevates the commonplace to something deeply meaningful. Lighting candles, sending cards, joining in services and celebrations, and trimming the tree are all ways of connecting with our past and plugging into a mutually restorative energy field. Habit provides an underlying structure that even when weakened by a pandemic or other social interruption, still provides scaffolding for getting through the moment.

This moment is all we have. Those of you familiar with Buddhist teachings will recognize this as a key tenant. If I let myself linger in my past or anticipate possible catastrophic outcomes in the future, I will most likely overlook or totally miss out on what is happening right now. Even if this very moment is uncomfortable, it is all I really have. The skill worth developing here is tolerance, not avoidance.

I have a preference for being happy. The challenge with having a preference is that I tend to seek out what I prefer. If I am focused only on finding the happy, there are going to be missed opportunities to experience other, less preferable states. In missing out on these, I lose out on opportunities to develop new capacities and learn new lessons. It has also meant that I try to find ways to numb the feelings and experiences I don’t like. Coming out of the numbness has frequently been very painful, perhaps even more painful than if I had just been present with the initial experience.

Grace and Gratitude

These insights brought me to a deeply satisfying awareness. In each case, there were moments of grace and moments of gratitude. When I was able to just pause and let the discomfort, anger, sadness, grief, or exhaustion be present, I became more adept with grace. I recognized that these were moments of intensity, but they were not in perpetuity. I increased my ability to tolerate the discomfort without needing to avoid or numb out. This brought me a deep sense of gratitude.

I am graced with loving friends who reach out to me and express their care and love for me. We share meals and laughter and try to make sense of a world that is as unpredictable as it has ever been. I am deeply grateful for having them in my life, and I hope I provide them with equal doses of love.

My new furry companions are offering me the opportunity to share my love with them and to restore some levity to my surroundings as they find places to pounce, sleep, and observe nature. They only ask that I feed them, offer fresh water, and clean the litter box. In return, I get purpose and companionship, along with a healthy dose of levity as I experience my environment through their eyes.

In this moment, I am experiencing gratitude for having you read my words, and grace for being able to share them with you. May you experience frequent moments of grace and endless depths of gratitude in the coming days and into the New Year.

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