Every year people in the United States gather with their families to eat turkey or ham and enjoy each other’s company. However, for those who experienced childhood trauma growing up in a dysfunctional home, Thanksgiving and Christmas are torture as they relive the holidays of the past.
This article will focus on why the holidays are so rough for trauma survivors and a few suggestions to help mitigate the pain.
Why the Misery?
For some, childhood was filled with violence and fear so gathering with the family meant danger and discomfort. Sometimes trauma, such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse occurred more frequently during the holidays as children didn’t attend school, the only place they could escape to.
It is difficult for many to comprehend what horrific traumas occurred for these children now grown into adulthood.
The trauma extended from childhood into adulthood leaving survivors with a crippling emotional upset in their lives, especially during the holidays.
Striving for a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving
Norman Rockwell was an American painter who illustrated for the front of The Saturday Evening Post where his iconic “The Art of Thanksgiving” was displayed in 1943.
The illustration shows a mother bringing to the Thanksgiving table a well-prepared turkey with smiling family members looking alive and peacefully happy. Everyone was getting along, gleeful, and it seemed to be what all Americans should be striving for during the holidays.
However, Mr. Rockwell’s illustration is only make-believe as there are no perfect Thanksgivings or Christmases, and for those who experienced severely dysfunctional families, it was even less likely.
This unreality has bred in the minds of survivors the idea that they can make their holidays just like the one in the Rockwell illustration if they find the right combination of actions and invite the right people. They are left wondering if they fail at having a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving because they are failures, or if they are somehow defective.
In any case, the emotional turmoil felt during the holidays for survivors is painful and no amount of telling them that they should pull themselves out of it or that the holidays are what you make them will change their agony.
Ways To Help Survivors During the Holidays
Cajoling and trying to force someone who has a traumatic history to cheer up during the holidays will never work any more than giving an aspirin to a person who just had open-heart surgery would work. The pain is too intense, too real.
There are ways, however, to help someone survive the holidays as they move through the muck left by their childhoods.
The biggest thing to do to help is to be an open and non-judgmental ear.
Listen to the survivor in your life and keep in mind that the words they are speaking are valid and important whether you think so or not. Each person has a unique perspective and insight into what occurred in their childhood, so trying to tell them it wasn’t as bad as they think is extremely harmful.
Do not attempt to one-up someone who is telling you how they feel or what happened when they were a child. Doing so will send a clear message to your friend or loved one with a trauma history that you don’t think what they are saying is valid, or worse, that you don’t believe them.
An Important Thing That Survivors Can Help Themselves
Finding a way to stay sane and alive during the holiday season isn’t up to anyone else, it is up to the survivor. That may seem harsh, but it is a reality. Having said that, what can survivors do to help themselves during the two months of November and December?
Leave the dry wells behind and find wells with water in them and
Dry wells are people who do not respect a survivor’s boundaries or pain. They feel the survivor owes them and have no respect for their feelings.
Wells with water in them are people who are full of love, compassion, respect and offer dignity to a survivor. Survivors need to go out and find people who respect and accept them with all their flaws and are not judgmental about what they feel or if they want to even observe the holidays or not.
There is Always Hope Even During the Holidays
The holidays are traumatic times for people who have a trauma history but that doesn’t mean there is no hope. Working on the traumatic events of the past in some form of therapy, while difficult, is well worth it to have peace in the heart.
While Thanksgiving and Christmas are not going anywhere soon, working toward the peace of mind that one can garner from therapy, finding wells full of water to spend them with, and remembering it is alright to say no are all great ways for a survivor to feel less pressured and to ease the pain at least a little.
“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.” ~ Danielle Bernock