I wasn't sure I'd survive that first Christmas alone after my husband moved into his beach view apartment to start his new single life. It was just 2 months before the Christmas holiday. For the past sixteen years, we'd spent the holiday with his family. Maybe it would have been easier if I'd been cursed with undesirable in-laws, but I loved his large gregarious clan. The thought of not being a part of that anymore was overwhelming. I was frantic and needed an escape plan from this new alternate reality. Rather than harm myself, I ran away to a tiny town in the Transylvanian Mountains of Romania where I volunteered at one of the many orphanage homes.
The children in that small village of seventeen hundred people gave me a glimmer of hope I desperately needed. I helped the younger kids bundle up for our early morning walk through the snow to school. In the classroom, 5 little girls encircled me and had my hair in braids before I even knew what they were doing. The kids delighted in baking cookies together and the older ones gave my sturdy MacBook a strenuous workout. Spending time with the children gave me perspective and a sense of purpose during a time I questioned if I had the strength to endure the crushing loss of my husband, our marriage and the future I was certain we'd share together.
After watching a Christmas puppet show in the common area of the dormitory style housing, children with bright smiles stuffed my pockets with wrapped chocolates and hard candies they'd just been given by their caregivers. Such a generous offering from children who aren't accustomed to daily sweet treats.
We all know the benefits of volunteering; it's a win-win for both parties, and I would add that volunteering in a country outside of the United States is sure to give your experience greater depth and meaning. It became quite clear that I had typical first world problems; a divorce attorney, a diamond ring I no longer needed and unwanted personal freedom. The kids in the village of Baile Tusnad had few possessions and limited prospects for advanced education and professional development.
While I highly recommend venturing out of state for a volunteer immersion, I learned some important things upon my return that will prove helpful upon your return.
Running Away Only Delays the Pain
Looking back, my decision to volunteer in Romania was the only healthy decision I could have made given the shock and grief that consumed me. But upon returning home, I had some serious backslides while integrating back into divorce negotiations.
3 Tips on Getting Back to Reality After a Volunteer Trip
1) Understand you're picking up the pain right where you left it. Get support. If family and friends fell by the wayside, schedule more time with your therapist or life coach, in person or online support groups, spiritual or religious support.
2) Sign up for a class in anything that even seems the slightest bit interesting. Learning something new helps the brain release dopamine, the feel good chemical that likely has been sucked dry from heartbreak.
3) Create a daily self-care plan that feeds the four elements of being human: your body, mind, emotions and spirit. Do them, even if you're doing other things that aren't healthy or productive.
The first holidays without your significant other can be extremely difficult. Creating a plan ahead of time can help reduce your anxiety and worry. Understand you will have sadness around the broken routine and traditions. Be aware of your emotions and manage them with constructive tools; journaling, reaching out to talk with someone, engage in some physical activity, meditate, let the tears flow, be kind and gentle with your self-talk and stay in the present moment as much as possible, resisting the tendency to think back to the past or jump to the future.
If you're not feeling up to formally engaging in volunteer work, consider doing your own random acts of kindness for a period of time. Volunteering or doing good deeds won't change your situation but it can help you to get through the holidays and beyond.
To research volunteer opportunities in your local area, check out Volunteer Match to find a cause you can put your heart and time into. When researching international opportunities, the website, Transitions Abroad offers guidance for your selection.
Patty Blue Hayes is the award winning author of Wine, Sex and Suicide – My Near Death Divorce and the creator of You Can Heal Your Heartbreak , an audio program based on her book, My Heart is Broken. Now What? Her life coaching helps people rediscover themselves after divorce. Connect with her at www.pattybluehayes.co m