The holidays are certainly meant to be a time of making merry and good cheer, but when a loved one is terminally ill, finding joy can seem an unattainable feat. Joni James Aldrich, author of The Saving of Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer, shares five ways to find purpose and compassion during the holiday season and show your ill relatives you care.
Is there no merry in your Christmas?
Whether you’re facing an older relative, like your father, who is bed-ridden from a stroke, or garnering strength to support a child who is battling a terminal illness, kindling your holiday spirit can be hard and even seem inappropriate.
“When the harshness of reality assaults your everyday existence, there are bigger concerns than how to decorate your tree or which wrapping paper to buy,” says Joni James Aldrich, whose husband lost a two-year battle with cancer in 2006, inspiring her to write The Saving of Gordon as a way to help other families going through similar situations. “The thing is — unless you move to a cave! — the holiday season will impact your life, whether you want it to or not. But if you step back and think about the true reasons for the season — mercy, caring, and humanity — the holidays that seem so difficult can also hold invaluable gifts.”
5 Ways you can bring joy to ill relatives this holiday season
Think about how your ill relative must view the holidays. She may feel like a family burden; he may be feeling scared that this is the last holiday he’ll have to spend with family. Aldrich urges, “If you lend your support to help your loved one through these difficult times — even though it may be hard — you will give and receive special blessings to cherish.”
1. Don’t wait for the “right time”—just go
Aldrich says there will never be a “convenient” time to visit a family member or friend who is battling a serious illness. Even good days are filled with difficulties and discomfort. Furthermore, you might not feel the same level of ease that you once did. Ultimately, though, you will both be thankful that you spent time together. “Visiting an ill loved one is going to be hard. Know that, and choose to move forward anyway,” instructs Aldrich. “When you do visit, consider the needs of the patient…and err on the side of caution when choosing to visit. If you are under the weather yourself — even if it’s just a sniffle or a cough — consider a phone conversation instead, or wear a mask.”
2. Visit the patient and the caregivers
If the ill relative is not an immediate family member, be considerate of those who care for her. Remember, your ill loved one is not the only person whose daily life has been affected by her illness. The routines and priorities of family members and/or caregivers have changed drastically as well. Be sure to also focus attention on them — they need it. “Whatever you do, don’t avoid the family because you are uncertain of how to approach them in a difficult situation,” urges Aldrich. “Call often, bring food, and offer prayers. These ‘gifts’ will be appreciated by the patient and by his or her family. It is very painful when the family expects that support, and ultimately doesn’t receive it.”
3. Avoid preconceived expectations
Imagine this: you’ve scheduled a visit with an ill relative, and you have grand plans for watching a favorite holiday movie and chuckling over the characters’ foibles. But when you arrive, she more urgently wants to talk about her memories, fears and uncertainties. You’re thrown completely for a loop and don’t know how to respond. “Always gauge the patient’s mood as acutely as you can,” Aldrich says. “It’s helpful if she is forthcoming about what would give her the most comfort, but she may not be able to express her feelings and needs that easily. Make the visit about the patient, whether that means that you end up laughing, crying, reminiscing or even leaving until a more convenient time.”
4. Be sensitive to changes in the holiday routine
Chances are, you’re feeling less festive than in years past — and the same goes for your ill relative and other family members. Remember that not only their enthusiasm but also their finances are likely to be impacted. Be prepared for the possibility that you might not receive a Christmas card or gift this year, and check with the family beforehand regarding gift exchanges and get-togethers. “If a holiday party does take place, take extra care not to go off into a corner to whisper with other friends and acquaintances,” Aldrich shares. “The last thing your ill loved one needs or wants is to feel like he is the cause of speculation or sadness. Similarly, there will be tears, so let them come. Sometimes the patient won’t want to see them, so you may have to steal some private time. Whatever you do, don’t shut yourself off completely from the patient or from your feelings.”
5. Remember that the best gifts can’t be wrapped
It’s trite but true — the most valuable things in life aren’t things. Your care and support will mean more to an ill relative than any amount of material presents. And when it does come time to break out the wrapping paper and bows, think about what might be truly needed. Blankets, shawls, a baby monitor, a sensible gift basket, or a heating pad and warm socks will be greatly appreciated, perhaps more so than traditional holiday trinkets. Keep in mind that flowers, including poinsettias, should be avoided due to their smell and the care that they require. “Don’t forget that a hug is one of the most powerful gifts that can be exchanged,” says Aldrich. She also encourages prayer. “Prayer is the most blessed gift of all — pray together, pray separately and pray often.”
“Ultimately, you will be blessed because of the comfort and love you have given to a family who needs it,” promises Aldrich. “You will have experienced the true meaning of Christmas — giving a gift to others that is much more valuable than anything you could ever wrap in a box.”
More on caring for ill loved ones
- The Sandwich Generation
- Give and take to find happiness
- Talking about a family illness with your kids