The Gift of Listening

By Catherine Downing and Elizabeth Downing
posted with permission

As the holiday season goes into full swing, we are aware of what comes with our celebrations: lots of activities, generous dessert tables and endless gatherings. It is, indeed, a time to be surrounded by family and friends. Most of us greet this time of the year with open arms and excitement; we look forward to spending extra time celebrating with those closest to us.

However, as we embrace this time of the year, there are those who see the holidays with a much different outlook. Your loved ones living with mental health conditions may view the holiday season as a gauntlet of triggers and with overall dread. For many, interactions with particular family members or having to be on point in large group settings can create feelings of anxiety and need for isolation.

This holiday season doesn’t need to be something that lurks above your loved one’s head or that cripples them with fear and dread. It can be a time of joy and celebration with the ones they love. But it takes some thinking ahead, planning and, most of all, listening. Put yourself in your loved ones’ shoes for a moment and take the time this holiday season to stop and really listen to those who would normally be silent.

As family members and friends we enjoy getting to know the people around us and their journey in life, but think about how to do this while being sensitive the feelings of our loved ones. Consider, for example, the typical conversations around the holiday table. Instead of asking those grilling life questions about what society believes to bring people success in this world, ask more open-ended questions to allow your loved ones to express themselves and share their interests.

Through gentle prompting and intentional listening we can empower those who normally feel anxious about being asked about employment, relationships and their conditions to confidently talk about what is important to them. We can demonstrate that they don’t need to feel ashamed about where they are in life. This approach will help encourage and convey support and value from their family and friends.

In addition to listening, there are many other practical ways to help our loved ones with mental health struggles navigate the holidays.

Consider these:

  • Don’t insist they participate in activities they feel are stressful for them. If they do choose to join in festivities, work out with them “escape plans” if they need to leave family gatherings early or abruptly.
  • Encourage them to help choose the guest list for your gatherings and respect their requests to not include specific people.
  • As much as possible, help maintain usual daily routines.
  • Encourage extra attention to regular healthy habits of sufficient sleep, nutritious meals and adequate exercise.
  • Discuss with your loved one the possibility of talking with their doctor about medication adjustments through the holidays.
  • Pray for wisdom, patience and peace for your loved one and for others around them.

And again, don’t forget to LISTEN. Take a moment in the busyness of preparations with your family and friends to make a pledge to stop and listen to those whose voices may be easily drowned out. By offering the gift of listening, you will speak the most important message you can share. You will give them them the most precious gift they can receive. You will address the deepest need any of us have: assurance that we are known, accepted and loved.

©2018 Catherine P. Downing

Catherine Downing is a friend of The Well Community, speaker and author of Sparks of Redemptive Grace book and blog, and 31 days, 31 ways 2 pray 4 families, a prayer guide for families dealing with mental illnesses. Elizabeth, Catherine’s daughter-in-law, has worked as a peer specialist.