"I'll Be Home for Christmas . . ."

"I just had the worst Christmas of my life!" wrote a friend this past January. Two months earlier her company had relocated her from Seattle to Dallas.

"I wish I could have spent the holidays with my family, but I couldn't afford a plane ticket home," she explained in her letter. "I haven't made any real friends at the office, and no one asked me if I had plans for Christmas. I ended up eating a microwavable turkey dinner and watching It's a Wonderful Life. I could hear my neighbors laughing and singing Christmas carols. I'm used to being with family and friends at the holidays; I never thought I could be this lonely."

My friend's situation isn't unique. Ironically, because we expect so much from the holidays, this season is often the loneliest time of the year. "Christmas is supposed to be a season of togetherness, family reunions, and joyful celebrations. When these things don't happen, we feel disappointed and lonely," says John Woodward, one of the nation's leading researchers on loneliness.

"The media is at least partly responsible," Woodward adds. "Television shows portray perfect families, and you may ask yourself, 'Why can't I have relationships like those?'"

Nostalgia also can intensify our feelings of loneliness when we reminisce about special childhood holidays. I remember my mom's homemade fruitcake and cozy get-togethers at my aunt's house on Christmas Eve. Many years later it seems as though nothing can top those memories.

Loneliness touches everyone's life to some degree. Here are five suggestions for confronting loneliness-and not just at the holidays, but throughout the year.

1. Admit that you are lonely.

My husband and I live 1,500 miles from our families, and there are many years when we aren't able to fly home for Thanksgiving. One year all our close friends were going out of town for Thanksgiving or had plans elsewhere.

We could have put our names on the church list of people who needed a place to go for Thanksgiving dinner, but I was too embarrassed to do it. So instead of joining a family from church, my husband and I ended up spending Thanksgiving at a local Mexican restaurant eating fajitas, tortilla chips, and salsa and feeling quite lonely-all because I didn't want to admit that nobody had invited us to dinner.

When I returned to work after Thanksgiving weekend, I was surprised to learn that others had spent Thanksgiving by themselves. I had assumed that they had somewhere to go-and they had assumed the same about me. If only one of us had acknowledged that we were going to be by ourselves and were looking for companionship for that day!

2. Don't act lonely.

A few years after my husband and I were married, he got a job transfer from southern California, where we had lots of friends and extended family, to Chicago, a city where we literally knew no one. I had just had a baby and wasn't going to be working outside the home for a while, so I wasn't going to have an "office outlet" to make friends. During the months after we arrived in Illinois, I felt incredibly lonely and disconnected. All I could think about was how much I missed my friends "back home."

At church I was overwhelmed with so many unfamiliar faces. I would walk in unsmiling, unwilling to make eye contact, and with body language that said, "Don't bother me." Not surprisingly, I didn't meet many people.

After a few weeks of this, I changed my approach. I started smiling, walked confidently, introduced myself to others, and planned several dinner parties. In short, I worked at being the kind of person others wanted to be around, and I no longer felt alone.

We shouldn't expect others to dig us out of our loneliness. "Find other people who are lonely and reach out to them," suggests Woodward, "and you will relieve your own feelings of loneliness. When you give of yourself freely and don't expect anything in return, you receive a lot more than if you just keep to yourself."

3. Take care of unfinished family business.

Sometimes we are lonely because of misunderstandings with family members (or friends) that have never been resolved. Rather than confront the problem, we withdraw and avoid family gatherings.

One 36-year-old single woman told me that she dreads spending time with her family on holidays. "My brother and three sisters are all married with children," she relates. "The whole time I'm with them they bombard me with such questions as 'Why don't you date so-and-so?' Nobody ever asks, 'How are you doing?' It's to the point that I'd rather make plans with friends than be with my family on a holiday."

"Resolving family conflicts can be awkward, but you just have to do it," says Nancy Stiehler-Thurston, Psy.D., a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. "Realize you can't change insensitive or intrusive family members, but you can plan how you're going to react. If you know what's going to happen the minute you walk through your parents' door, prepare ahead of time how you want to respond, rather than become emotional when it happens. If something is said at the dinner table to upset you, excuse yourself to another room and sort out your thoughts."

We shouldn't expect too much from family and friends at Christmas. It's hard for anyone, even the most well-intentioned, to live up to the ideal vision-the exaggerated sense of love and joy associated with the season.

4. Make the most of it.

Even though you may have to be alone at the holidays, you don't have to be lonely. Set up a time to call loved ones by phone either before or on the holiday. Write to friends you haven't heard from in a while. Avoid depressing music and television programs, and keep your surroundings bright and cheerful.

"You should do what the old song says, 'Deck the halls with boughs of holly,'" says Woodward. "Our physical environment affects the way we feel, so decorate your house. Put a little Christmas in every room. Even at your office, put a little something on your desk that indicates this is a very special time of year."

One businesswoman shares what she does at Christmas: "I'm often traveling at Christmas and can't be with relatives, so I have my mother videotape our family's Christmas party and send the tape to me. They open their presents in front of me, they sing carols to me, and each person gives a short speech. One year they drove around the neighborhood and filmed all the houses with their Christmas lights. I felt right at home."

5. Use your time alone to draw close to God.

Turn your time alone into an advantage: it's time you can refresh yourself, set some goals, meditate on Scripture, or get back in touch with God.

The summer I graduated from college was the most lonely period of my life, but it was also one of the most profitable. I had said goodbye to all my friends who were moving to different parts of the country and had moved back to my hometown to be with my family. My mother was dying of cancer and in a coma. I had turned down a job at the local newspaper because I was needed at home full-time. High school and church friends my age had long ago moved away from home. There was literally no one I could talk to.

But then it dawned on me that I was overlooking my most important relationship-my relationship with God. I began taking my concerns to Him in prayer, and I no longer felt that I was facing the tough times alone. This was the kind of void only God could fill.

My bout with extreme loneliness forced me to depend on God in a deeper way than I had ever imagined possible. The apostle Paul made it clear that with God, we can be strong even though we may feel weak: "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Although we may treasure family members and friendships, people move away, die, or grow apart from us. But we all need to remind ourselves that as long as we have a relationship with God, we will never be completely alone. Jesus was misunderstood by those closest to Him, but He knew that God was always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32). And even when He was surrounded by crowds of people who had come to hear Him, He often withdrew to "lonely places" to pray to His Father (Luke 5:16).

God wants us to take a break from our normal routines and make time for Him. Loneliness is one way He gets our attention. It's when we slow down, when we are by ourselves with no activities planned, that we are forced to take an honest look at who we are. We have a chance to sort our thoughts and priorities-and God has a chance to draw us into a more intimate relationship with Him and encourage us with His love.

Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer specializing in family, pet, and health topics. She lives in the Dallas, Texas, area with her husband and two sons.

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