Being together for family holidays when things have not been okay in your world can be, well, not awesome.

Absences and heartbreaks are more pronounced. Loss and struggle get sugar-coated or momentarily forgotten. You end up fighting out of discomfort or grief. Your mother may want to flip through 237 pictures of the sister you just lost, while seeing her face might be too hard for you.

You want to be together. You want to be anywhere else.

How can you be present when most of the situation makes you want to hide?

My advice:

Say ‘yes’ to whatever is life-giving.

Accept invitations for gatherings you know will lift your spirit, even if that means driving 8 hours to see your best friend or going to see “The Nutcracker” alone.

Weigh which parties, mall photos, 5-hour cookie decorating marathons are joyful for you and which are merely to satisfy other people. There is likely a balance to be found (and don’t feel bad about not answering all 87 daily FaceTime calls from Aunt Ethel. Maybe you can give her a ring when you’re stuck in traffic).

Give yourself some grace and permission to Not Be Okay. While Grandma’s pumpkin pie might be yummy for the tummy, it won’t necessarily fix everything. When things are terrible, that pie might taste better than normal or feel like dust in your mouth. Both are ok.

It is okay to leave early. Some seasons in life require more rest. The holiday season can be packed with long evenings. Don’t be shy about your need for extra recuperation (it’s bad enough to go through a terrible time – no need to add bags under your eyes).

You are the author of your own narrative. You can’t control what other people say or think, but you can control the conversation you contribute. Some of my favorite responses to “Tough year, huh? How are you?” are: 1) “Terrible, thanks for asking!” 2) “What makes you think that?” *sips wine pointedly* or 3) “Kind of you to ask, but I’d much rather hear about your [new job, child, roller derby hobby, conspiracy theory].” You don’t owe anyone your Narrative of Horrible.

That said, seek out the family members you wish lived closer to you and chat up a storm. When in doubt, go for the kids. I’ve found that younger humans are much more eager to talk dinosaurs or Disney Channel than disease or divorce.