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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 10:00 pm

Holidays remind us: Others' happiness can hurt

Nina B. Lichtenstein

Last year, I received a holiday card with a big "Trigger Warning!" on the top of the two-page, single-spaced letter. It read: "This lengthy, old-fashioned, holiday letter may trigger feelings of dismay, disorientation, or dread for those accustomed to getting their news via 140 character tweets, Instachats or Snapograms. Please read with care."

But it was not dread from the holiday letter’s lengthiness that made me push it aside, unread for three weeks, but something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I care about this family and their children, who have grown up with my kids. Their mom and I had playgroups together when our kids were tiny tots; our children have attended the same schools. We have shared in each other’s family celebrations, as well as many holidays. On many levels, our families are tight, and share more than most.

Except that I got divorced. This is where the story of two entwined families ends, and where the New Year’s letter becomes problematic for me.

My eyes scan the edges of the cream-colored paper containing the stories of accomplishments and adventures, of love and support, even of the expected hiccups known to families with moody teens and overextended parents.

Each paragraph recounts changes and escapades in a family-life well lived, including managing a child’s disability with poise, compassion and inspiration. Reading about how this loving family manages to keep it together, despite life’s ups and downs, I feel sad that I failed to keep mine together.

My eyes start to blur and I quietly sob, taking slow deep breaths so as not to reveal to my three sons sitting at a table nearby that other people’s joy and accomplishments make me sad.

Having to explain why I am crying would mean I’d be allowing my sadness at our broken family to turn a moment of special family time – they are home on break – into something gloomy rather than joyful. It would upset them to see me sad. Even after five years, I find that my divorce remains a thorn in the side of the happiness I share with my sons.

After I finish the letter, I put it down on the coffee table, stare into space, open a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing.

The next morning, the letter still splayed on the table, I realize it’s not just the image of a happy, still-together family that had unmoored me. It’s also the power of the record-keeping and the memories that such records evoke.

Before digital cameras, the New Year’s letter mother and I both had been avid photographers who would make family photo albums. However, where I was cutting and pasting, making more of a scrapbook, my friend had been a pro at filing her photos in thick, archival-quality vinyl photo pockets, which I soon realized was the only way photos would make it from envelope to book in our time-pressed lives as parents.

She had been effective and pragmatic in her approach; I had been ineffective and dreamy, prone to losing myself on the way.

At the end of the day, the recording of family or personal memories – whether with photos, the written word, videos or memorabilia – is a powerful way to share our stories. I’ve been thinking that even the stories that don’t have happy endings deserve to be remembered and told. As Leonard Cohen reminds us: "There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in."

I know I’m not alone as a divorced parent being reminded, especially at this "joyous" time of year, of all that was and no longer is. But this year I will try to be a little wiser as the now-anticipated feelings sweep over me. I will remind myself to try to simply notice the sadness, to let it in and give it space. It may be clearing me out for some new delight to enter.

Nina B. Lichtenstein teaches literature and writing at University of Connecticut. She wrote this for the Washington Post.