Carolyn Hax: Depressed after a bleak Thanksgiving

Carolyn Hax
Columnist December 18, 2011

Dear Carolyn: My husband left the day before Thanksgiving to attend a funeral. My brother, who lives nearby and whom I haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving, was supposed to join us, but has been ill himself and canceled at the last moment. He asked us not to come to his home instead. My son, home from college after a difficult adolescence, has not spoken to me in nearly a year. He chose to stay in his room for the entire four-day weekend and ignore me and his sibling.

So it was my daughter and me: alone for four days of the worst Thanksgiving ever, but clearly not our last worst holiday. Even with my husband there, with no other family it would have been pretty dismal. I have no other family. My husband’s family lives abroad. I have no close friends with whom I could have shared the holiday, especially at the last moment. My brother’s health is in such decline I may not have many chances to see him, and yet he and his wife refuse to maintain contact.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Please don’t suggest the cliche of opening our home/table to others. We did this in the past through our house of worship. It results in odd people who show up at your house once, eat, thank you and leave. There are no connections made, nothing in common except we’re all losers in the family/friends department.

We’ve also volunteered in the past, which was also a bust. There were so many volunteers that we just ended up redistributing pie that had already been turned down. We tried inviting families of children’s friends (far in advance), but they all have places to go with their own families/friends.

At this point I give up. We sat and ate turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers.


I don’t know how to let my daughter know that it’s always going to be miserable like this, that she’ll be alone/lonely for holidays for most of her life, since her brother, too, has chosen not to speak to her (yes, he was in counseling, but stopped going). She, like me, seems to have difficulty bonding and making friends. (And, yes, she is in counseling.)

I’m not sure if I can provide any help for her. It seems we’re simply a group of losers with no family or friends. — D.

Wow. Maybe next time, go to the funeral.

There are things you can do to help. First among them is to get off that self-pity train, now.

Yes, you have real and serious reasons to feel distressed, especially your son’s estrangement, followed closely by your brother’s. Living losses are often harder to process than deaths, because estrangement involves a choice.

But the rest of your poor-me litany just sounds like piling on to justify your gloom — and your child’s! In perpetuity! Yes, you don’t have other relatives, your husband’s are overseas, your kids’ friends have other plans, your volunteering was a bust. These aren’t calamities, they’re just life introducing itself. What happens matters less than how you respond.

So, remind yourself as needed that everyone has disappointments, not just you. That’s help for your daughter (and son, and you) that never expires.

You can also help by not letting “I give up” be the end of the story. Instead, call it the end just of the Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving story — which frees you to write a new one.

As in, admit that the “traditional” script ruins your day, then burn it. Retain only this: your immediate family, and a Thursday off from work.

Then: If money isn’t an issue, book rooms in a scenic hotel — in town or a short distance away. If money is an issue, try an out-of-season resort, or just plan a hike; nature doesn’t close. If it rains, have a movie binge at the local multiplex — or download one at home, or find your own, utterly personal way both to enjoy your family’s company and to displace your forlorn, post-apocalyptic turkey trudge.

As helpful acts go, this is in the teach-your-kids-to-fish category.

It does sound as if the counseling is warranted, for family patterns in need of re-cutting. I urge you to go on your own, too, to help you with your possible depression and those two heavy estrangements.

Note that I didn’t list your relative solitude as a reason to seek help. That’s because “alone/lonely” are not interchangeable terms. For many people, the mom-dad-kid(s) holiday is a welcome choice, and having one or two meaningful bonds is preferable to any Rockwell-aspirant scene.

By reframing your 1-to-4-person holidays, and by replacing “I give up” with positive, chuck-the-script choices — that’s how you can help. Your son especially, I’ll wager; his door may be closed, but surely he sees right through it.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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