Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Presence of Absence at Christmas ...

I notice your absence.
I notice your non-presence and reflect
on the time when you were present ...

Jarod Kintz

Hello everyone,

I've just finished all the happy "work" of the holidays and now there is time to sit back by the fire with a cup of tea to reflect on the holiday experience thus far

The winter holidays are usually the most joyful time of year for me. I love everything about them - the lights, the colours, the gifts, the music, the connection with family and friends. This year, however, changes in the pattern of life have subdued some of that joy. One sister, who lost her partner last spring, is grieving. The other sister is far away in Dawson City, without her family, working through the holidays. My dear friends, whose daughter is spending Christmas in a hotel room in a small city in Borneo rather than joining them for Christmas dinner, are missing her presence. And my own traditional plans for Christmas Day have taken a different path this year, asking me to spend most of Christmas Day alone.

At one point during the week, I sat down with my journal to better understand the strength of my emotional response to these "absences". I was sad and angry and lonely to a degree that seemed a bit of an overreaction to the actual circumstances. (After all, I am hardly a Syrian refugee being torn from everything I know or a family caregiver saying goodbye to a loved one who will die over the holidays.) As usual, after digging a little deeper, I realized that the intensity of my response came from layers of similar experiences in times past, times when the presence of absence figured strongly in my life. 

Whether at the very beginning of life when I lived as a boarder baby in a hospital nursery or during the many times in my childhood when my beloved father disappeared without warning on an alcoholic binge or throughout the early years of my bereavement following the deaths of my husband and mother, this "presence of absence" has had a strong, if sometimes unconscious, effect on my life. Now, when current holiday experiences trigger the emotional memories of these absences, my old and new reactions can mix together and become a little over-the-top.  

It is in the nature of life that we live in the presence of absence. Something or someone is almost always missing or about to go missing. Most of us build up an internal file folder of "absence experiences" over time, a folder that has the potential to raise our emotional intensity whenever it is reopened by a current loss or disappointment. 

So, what do we to do when this file folder is opened unexpectedly and all those old pages of absence fall out on the floor with their attendant emotions?

The first step is to recognize that this, indeed, is what's happening. This recognition lets us separate present experience from past emotion, allowing us to respond to the current absence with more appropriate intensity.

Secondly, we can reach out for a "presence" to calm and balance the experience of absence. Tell a trusted friend how you're feeling, write in your journal, pray, meditate, lean into the web connecting all human beings for support and comfort.

Thirdly, make a concrete action plan for doing the best you can with the absence situation that faces you. I have a large turkey thigh in the fridge waiting to be stuffed tomorrow morning, a fire all ready to be laid in the fireplace and a new book on hand to open tomorrow afternoon. I've also booked telephone visits with particularly supportive loved ones, spread throughout the day. It won't be the Christmas I want but it can be a better one than the lonely one I'd imagined.

And, finally, after the holidays have passed, you can consider seeing a good therapist to work at emptying your absence file folder of some of its older pages so that your holiday emotions can gradually become less overwhelming.

Whatever the absences present in your life this holiday season, may each of you find sufficient gifts of peace and joy to balance them. 
Merry Christmas, everyone!


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