Finding Joy During the Holidays When You or Someone You Love Is Sick
By Sue Budz, MSW, LICSW
When you or someone you love receives a diagnosis of cancer or other major illness, life is suddenly turned upside down. Fear and worry about the unknown are instantly present. Whether it is the early days of a diagnosis, the days along the path of treatment, or the days after treatment has completed, a major illness has a way of crystalizing how fragile and precious life is.
This heightened awareness for the appreciation of life can bring a mix of intense emotions. During the holiday season, these emotions can intensify as people navigate their health needs and yearning to be well. Even without a serious illness, the holidays might be filled with unrealistic expectations, difficult memories, or strong emotions. Experiencing a serious illness during the holiday season impacts an already busy and challenging time of the year.
What can you do?
Joy, the feeling of great happiness and good fortune, seems to be advertised everywhere during the holiday season, suggesting it is as easy to find as a gift for a Secret Santa exchange. We know this is not true; finding joy is not always easy. Sometimes, joy is not noticeable or easily recognized. In the face of a serious illness, you may approach how you find joy a bit differently. One way is to intentionally turn away from the pressures of the holiday season and identify what is truly meaningful to you. By clarifying what is meaningful, you will find moments of peace and gratitude and create the ability to celebrate joyfully.
One way to start is by asking yourself these four questions: What do I truly appreciate?
What am I most grateful for? Who do I love? Who loves me?
In my years of practice, I have learned that reflecting on these questions can be a meaningful way to clarify what you truly value. It may also allow you to access what is most important. It is this clarity of values and meaningfulness that can set the tone for your holiday joy.
So, what now?
While it takes a bit of effort, quieting the distractions of the self-imposed rush of the holidays can provide opportunity to consider what brings you joy. I encourage you and your loved ones to discuss how you would like this holiday season to be. You may decide to spend time with a special person rather than a crowd of well-wishers. Perhaps now is an opportunity to start a new tradition that is meaningful to you, or celebrate a special tradition that connects you to family and friends. These conversations can move you toward creating a holiday season that, while different than the past, is right for you. This shift in focus can move your attention away from how serious illness has impacted this holiday season towards clarifying reasonable expectations and a new set of traditions that can offer you peace and joy. Whatever you decide to include in your celebrations, know that it is the right decision for you.
The holiday season can be challenging for loved ones as well. The desire to bake, decorate, and plan “happy” activities - to make everything perfect - can lead to anxiety, stress, and the disappointing sense that nothing turned out as intended. As you and your loved ones stay mindful of the ‘reasons for the season,’ you can all offer yourselves the gift of self-kindness. It is a time that you can purposefully decide not to judge yourselves and to celebrate what is meaningful right now.
As a suggestion, some families have found that sharing loving or funny stories aloud or through written cards has enriched their lives in meaningful ways and has been more restful and joyful than baking platters of cookies or spending hours shopping.
However you choose to spend the holiday season, I wish you and yours many moments of peace and joy.
Sue Budz, MSW, LICSW is an oncology social worker at the BMC Cancer Center