Sunday, December 7, 2008

One Is the Loneliest Number

The Three Dog Night song, One, describes what many single parents feel from Thanksgiving through New Years.

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do."

Television, cards and advertisements promote this season as a time for flawless family gatherings, flaming fireplaces and fabulous fun.


Before being propelled into single parenthood, I looked forward to celebrating.


I couldn't wait for this season to end. Come New Years Day, I feel a profound sense of relief. This time of the year intensifies loneliness, especially when the sentimental contrasts of the Hallmark ideal bombard our hearts. The holidays don't stop for the heartbroken and emotionally wounded.

It's a strange time. Even when family members drive me nuts, I still long to share the holiday with them. Like a lost glove without a mate, I've often wished for "me plus one," a warm relationship with a special someone to melt away my loneliness.

What Triggers Loneliness?

Feeling deserted by one of the three D's—death, deployment or divorce.

Losing a relationship with someone you love.

Longing for family unity and togetherness.

Living far away from loved ones.

Missing your children.

21 Ways to Ease Holiday Loneliness

When I was betrayed, humiliated and abandoned, loneliness suffocated my joy. The social isolation of divorce further fueled my loneliness. Widows often receive more support as they mourn the loss of a partner. No matter how you found yourself alone, we miss those we loved with all our hearts.

In time the loneliness of the holidays lessens, but I'm still not convinced it ever goes away. However, here are some strategies that helped me reduce loneliness.

  1. Confront illusions. Experts caution against buying into the perception that you fail to measure up to a "good" Christmas if it's not an idyllic, joy-filled holiday. Millions experience holiday loneliness—and they're not all crazy. In fact, loneliness affirms your healthy need to connect in meaningful relationships.

    No one's family measures up to overblown TV illusions. Holiday-white-Christmas-hype and joyous family reconciliation fuels loneliness. The phantom spirits of family fractures, frictions, issues, and losses raise their ghostly heads. Life and holidays aren't ideal, so stop expecting perfection.

    This is reality. The turkey is too dry. A sibling pulls her annual dampen-everyone's-Christmas-spirit-routine. Uncle Bud-Not-Weiser swaggers in drunk—again. You didn't get one present that you wanted.

    I run myself ragged, feeling resentful that I have to do everything on my To-Do list alone. I worry, Will my sons need therapy because I didn't finish needle pointing their Christmas stockings personalized with their names? Congratulate yourself when you give up control of what "should" happen.

  2. Embrace truth. Even the best holidays fail to meet every expectation. The holidays are a painful reminder of the dreams that failed to materialize per our aspirations. Our perceptions exaggerate loneliness. Comparing ourselves with others, "They seem so happy and I'm not. I wish I had what they have." I compared myself with those less fortunate and realized, I have the gift of health, wonderful sons, a few loyal friends, and the assurance that God loves me and has promised my children and I a future and a hope. The only thing he asks is for me to embrace truth and trust him.
  3. Contemplate loneliness. What causes your loneliness? Nostalgic memories? Yearnings for a lost loved one? Your kids moved to another part of the country? Don't feel like you belong anywhere? Feeling isolated? Unhappy memories of holidays past?

    Holiday cheer does not eliminate legitimate feelings of sadness and loneliness. Allow yourself to reflect on your feelings. It's important to understand that the way you feel does not signify, "Something is wrong with me." It means that you react normally to difficult circumstances. There is no one right way to feel or respond to heartache. God doesn't ask us to imitate others or pretend to be happy. God understands your hurts, cares about you and is near to the brokenhearted.

  4. Express feelings. The cultural expectation that everyone "should be merry" didn't banish the reasons I felt lonely. I did not want to dampen the joy or excitement others feel, so I stuffed the depth of my loneliness into my heart. Sometimes, it was so dark, I couldn't write those thoughts in my journal. Too embarrassing. So I withdrew in silence—depression swirled through my mind, leaving me feeling even more alone.

    Some people try to disconnect from their feelings by drinking, excessive spending, working long hours, or engaging in other forms of anesthesia. I gave others the same thing I desired—space and the freedom to feel and express those feelings. I encouraged my children to express their disappointment and comforted them by acknowledging that their pain was legitimate.

    I was honest with myself and allowed room for my feelings. Finally, I found other supportive individuals who understood. Often they pointed out the silver lining on my cloud that I'd painted black. For me, I look forward to New Years Day which lightens my feelings of abandonment.

  5. Acknowledge change. For a long time, I didn't want to accept that my life drastically changed. I didn't want the change. I didn't like the change. I wanted my former life back. Finally, I accepted, My life has changed, now what?
  6. Establish priorities. Over booking, working or committing myself into a state of exhaustion didn't automatically relieve loneliness. I based my plans around what's important to me—not the expectations of others.
  7. Redeem time. I made my time alonecount and made it special. When the boys were gone, I bought blackberry wine and a steak and enjoyed a quiet dinner in front of TV. I treated myself to hot baths, chocolate, a full night's sleep, and quiet, uninterrupted trips to the bookstore.
  8. Limit aloneness. I confess, I wanted to stay home and wallow in loneliness. My friends didn't let me sink into self-pity. They insisted I join them for dinner. I preferred to stay home and feel like a martyr, because I was rejected. But I soon realized that withdrawing created a no-win situation. I had to take initiative to step from the dark shadows into the light. Avoid hiding at home or cuddling up to alcohol. Accept the love and kindness of others who understand your circumstances.

    I had to ask, How much time alone time is good for me? Bad for me? At a certain point, I slipped into self-pity and depression, which seems to be a constant solo parent battle. I had to be honest with myself and make plans that felt right for me. I didn't want loneliness to dominate me.

    Sometimes when I spent a holiday with a family, at the time it made me ache for my family to be reunited. As I look back on those times, I don't feel anguish, but recall the nostalgia of being included and accepted and loved for where I was in life.

  9. Obtain support. Feeling isolated motivates me to retreat and hide, but I need to reach out for support. I looked for those who experienced or understand my situation. Sometimes it's family members, friends, mentors, or others. Other times it was religious institutions, single parent groups or social services offering support and friendship.
  10. Seek help. When intense loneliness slips into depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone by phone, whether it be a friend, relative, or professional, just call someone. There were times that the only threads connecting me to life and hope were my sons. Don't let temporary moods devastate today and ruin your future and your children's.
  11. Look Outward. I've spent my fair share of time focusing inward on my personal tragedy. To take my mind off myself, I volunteered at an organization that provides toys for individuals who can't afford them. One well-dressed woman walked in and instantly, I recognized that dazed look, emotional pain and humiliation of a proud mother who didn't have money to buy her sons toys. In the midst of my personal pain, it brought me great joy to tenderly guide and help this fragile woman.
  12. Help others. Unbelievably, there are others who are far lonelier and in worse circumstances than solo parents. The greatest gift to give this holiday season is time. Spend it with others who have no one. Those hit hardest at this time of year include the underprivileged, hospitalized children, the homeless, the disabled, shut-ins, prisoners, prisoner's children, HIV/AIDS patients, or lonely senior citizens. Opportunities abound: give a used coat to a local homeless shelter, spend Christmas Eve or Day answering help lines, serve a meal at the soup kitchen, deliver presents to nursing homes, hospitals and prisons.

    Volunteering accomplishes several things: It touches someone else's life who is less fortunate. It gives the gift of true giving to those who've lost so much, surrounds you with others who share your spirit of giving, lifts your spirit, and helps you recognize the gifts and blessings in your life. And it's good for your soul to help the least of these.

  13. Organize get-togethers. Why go it alone, when you can include others? I felt lonely and sad without a husband to manhandle the Christmas tree into the stand. One year a family came to our home and helped us decorate our tree. Another year one single mother had no money or family. I invited her and her son for dinner and supplied the gifts on her son's Santa wish list.

    Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years provide new opportunities to make the day an adventure to get to know others. Start a new tradition to include others who go it alone. Have a potluck and ask them to bring a white elephant gift. Plan the day and fill it with what you enjoy sharing.

  14. Broaden friendships. Get creative and include friends and acquaintances. Even though my heart felt that the holidays were for family, I realized that others were like me—without family near. I've invited a group to my home to trim my tree, play games, watch a movie, or eat a special dinner. Host a cookie exchange party or a white elephant gift party. Others I know planned a weekend trip. Singles organizations often offer special holiday activities. If everyone in your sphere of influence is with family, volunteer to help others without family or friends. You can make new friends while comforting others and having fun too.
  15. Initiate one-on-ones. Get in touch with otherson their own. Do dinner and a movie. Get together before the holiday to exchange gifts.
  16. Rethink tradition. Reevaluate the real meaning of traditions. They aren't set in cement. The first Christmas the boys and I spent alone, I begged several men to show up dressed as Santa Claus, because that's something their father did. No one agreed to come, which made me feel even lonelier. Instead, I videoed the boys telling the Christmas story and wrestling with each other, which we enjoy today.

    I replaced perfection, running around and spending money with what I could afford with my limited finances and time constraints. Hanukkah and Christmas both celebrate God's miracle gifts to those he treasures.

    I continued my tradition of giving each of my sons a Christmas ornament each year, but scaled back on how much I spent on their toys. If you change or start new traditions, let your children participate. Don't forget to explain the meaning of your tradition.

    One Christmas the boys and I took another single parent's Christmas wish list. My sons chose the clothes and toys for the children. They loved carrying in gifts and placing them under their barren tree. Kyle was so excited he insisted they open their gifts immediately so he could watch. I explained that they would open their gifts on Christmas Day. I placed the turkey and all the trimmings on their empty table. My sons and I left with a greater understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.

  17. Attend events. Enjoy free activities, concerts, work-related parties, driving around to look holiday decorations, or building a snowman with your children. Is there an event you've always wanted to attend, but haven't? Make a list, then choose one you can afford. I took my sons to a well-known puppet Christmas show. The boys and I strolled through a block of homes that decorated their homes with lights. We marveled at all the sparkling lights and creativity. I've always wanted to attend The Nutcracker ballet, but haven't yet. This year I'm going to "Scrooge: The Carol with an Attitude." When I lived in California, my new Christmas tradition was attending the free Christmas concert at Jack Hayford's Church on the Way.
  18. Do socialize. If invited, go to parties. My loneliness in a crowd often made me feel awkward. I felt removed from others who seemed so happy. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed, and found a quiet room to cry or emotionally regroup. Even when I wasn't in a party mood, attending a social gathering kept me from sliding deeper into the abyss. It also prevented me from staying home curled up in a fetal position.
  19. Forgive others. Wish the Deck-the-Hallers well who are uncomfortable with our long Silent Night. In the beginning, I admit I felt angry when jolly revelers insisted I count my blessings. What goes around comes around and theirs' just hasn't come around—yet. Pain has not shattered their seasonal affective conditioning disorder—a perfect holiday season where all suffering is relieved. I bandaged my wounds, but I didn't wrap them in paper, bows and jingle bells to make others more comfortable. In time, I found myself comforting others when life shattered their lives.
  20. Contact family. If distance separates you from family and friends, figure out a time of day to call family and friends. Plan your calls, so you don't go broke. And make sure the calls are a nice diversion for the day, not the focal point of your day. Rather than spotlighting the fact that you're not together, enjoy the connection.
  21. Ignite faith. What obscures the meaning behind your religious Holy Days? Too busy? Too many unrealistic fantasies? Some say that people of faith manage holidays better than others. What is your perspective of the Holy Days?

    When I was first propelled into solo parenting, I could not sing familiar hymns or songs without sobbing. They caused too much pain. The lyrics and tunes brought back wonderful memories of producing annual Christmas musicals with my music minister husband.

    My life changes were unbearable. Over time, the strength of the unchanging story of those hymns infused hope and healing into my broken spirit. Hearing Bible stories of my faith, singing traditional hymns and participating in religious customs validated that not all was lost. Spirituality doesn't chase away every speck of loneliness, but ageless truths comforted me.

    The Holy Days remind us of God's miraculous love for us. He knows the purpose for my life and the circumstances that changed my life. There are times when I've told God, "You're not enough. I need someone with skin on." As I look back over all the Christmas's I felt so alone, I realize I wasn't. It just felt that way.

    My faith assures me that God will never leave me nor forsake me. He sent his greatest gift to me to accept and open—salvation through His son and hope through His Word.

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