THE BLOG

The Grieving Introvert and the Holidays: A Different Kind of Survival Guide

11/30/2013 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2014
  • Megan Devine Licensed clinical counselor, writer and grief advocate

All over the Web, people are posting "how to survive the holidays" articles. It's true -- this time of year adds an extra measure of pain to people already bearing more than they can, more than they should ever have to. There is the empty seat at the table, the heaviness of all the ways the one you love is missing, traditions that have gone flat, smacking against the empty place.

The first holiday season after Matt drowned was surreal for so many reasons. Death. There's the big one. But there was also the frantic need for people to make it a "good" holiday for me: I received so many invitations. Far more invitations than I ever had in the past. Invitations from people I barely knew, and from friends and family. I'm not sure how to say this without seeming ungrateful for the true care and love behind these invitations: This drove me crazy.

Matt and I were not big holiday people. Neither of us enjoyed the normal small talk of parties, or the general cacophony and chaos of shopping. For his part, Matt preferred to spend the holidays quietly, home with just his son and I, or off on a hike somewhere. As a therapist, I liked not having to talk to anyone for a few days in a row. Any days we both had off at the same time was a rarity, and meant for adventure. Our adventures.

See, this is what we shared. Not just from November through New Year's, but all year long: the enjoyment of our own company. Pleasure in being alone, and in being alone together. We shared the same outlook. With him, I always had my social comrade -- agreeing on the time and plan of escape before entering a party or gathering, knowing each other's signals so well and clearly that one glance across the room was enough to know it was time to leave. When he died, I not only lost my companion, but also my reflection: We were so alike in our social needs, we validated each other just by our existence.

Being introverted is getting a lot of press these days -- and for once, it's positive press. It's now cool to be quiet, to be more reflective and inner-directed. From my own experience, being both an introvert and in grief brings unique challenges.

So if you're with me here, nodding your head, eyes tearing up, missing the one you are quiet with -- let's talk about how to survive these holidays when maybe they were a bit trying even before life went sideways.

Say no a lot. Really. Other people will tell you you should say yes to things, get out more, be social. You know what? No. If "being social" gives you the hives, why on earth would you do that? Remember that "no" is a complete sentence. You can say "no, thank you" if you must say more.

Choose your gatherings. If you do choose to attend something holiday-ish, choose wisely. Sometimes a big crowd is easier than a small one, because you can slip out un-noticed as you need to. While a small gathering might have been most comfortable in your life. Before, those intimate things can feel more like a crucible now, with people watching to see how you are.

Find ways to be alone-together with others. Musical offerings, candlelight meditations or services -- check those little local newspapers and see what's going on in your community.

Volunteer. The first Thanksgiving after Matt died, I volunteered in the local soup kitchen. It was an "acceptable" reason for not attending family obligations, and also a way I could serve others in my own quiet way.

Have a plan. As I mentioned above, Matt and I always had our exit strategy planned in advance. Before you go to a party or an event, be sure to make your exit plan clear -- with yourself. Give yourself an out, whether that is a specific time limit or an emotional cue that lets you know it's time to go.

Check in with yourself. This is true not just for events and gatherings, but for every single moment of life. Check in with yourself. Take just a minute to take a breath, one good inhale/exhale, and ask yourself how you're doing. Ask yourself what you need. It may be that the piped in Christmas carols at the grocery store are just too much. Maybe you need to leave now -- just abandon that cart in the aisle. Or maybe you feel like you can push through, so you put your emotional blinders on and sing yourself some other song to blot out the noise.

Which brings me to my favorite anytime-not-just-the-holidays tip:

LEAVE WHENEVER YOU WANT. Stop whatever you're doing whenever you want. Please remember that this is your life. You do not have to do anything that feels bad or wrong or horrifying. Even if you agreed to participate in something, you can change your mind at any time.

The holidays are going to hurt, my friend. That is just reality. Whether you are missing someone who should be part of the festivities, or you are missing someone who shared your love of quiet acknowledgment over raucous partying, this season will add some to your grief.

Companion yourself. Care for yourself. Listen. Reach out where it feels good to reach, curl in when that is what you need. Make this season as much of a comfort to you as you can. And when it is not a comfort, know we're here. All these other grieving introverts: We get you. We understand.

Megan Devine is the author of Everything Is Not Okay: an audio program for grief. You can find her at www.refugeingrief.com, on facebook at www.facebook.com/refugeingrief, and at holiday festivities -- watching from an appropriate distance.