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Loved Ones with Cancer: Celebrating Their Last Holiday Season

Lit holiday candle

Nicole is 16, and Ethan is 14. Their father, Jack, has battled brain cancer for the past two years. Jack was told recently that further treatment had a less than 10% chance of being successful. Jack wants to enjoy whatever time he has left feeling good and not being wiped out by chemotherapy. While no one wants to say it out loud, it’s clear that this will be Jack’s last Christmas (please substitute Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc., as appropriate).

How is Jack’s family supposed to come to terms with this? It can’t possibly be true. After the shock and complete denial subside, the painful reality begins to sink in. A flood of emotions comes with this realization, with profound sadness and anger often topping the list. It’s harder to face if your loved one is young and he or she has young children. The holidays speak of possibilities and are supposed to be a magical time for children; belief is suspended, and all holiday stories have happy endings.

The first step in dealing with this situation is to acknowledge that this will be someone’s last Christmas. Just saying that out loud will address the elephant in the room and help to decrease the stress that family members have been carrying internally. There will be tears, to be sure, but then the family can begin the process of grieving this sad reality together, rather than each member trying to deal with it alone. It is often the case that people don’t share their feelings with each other because they don’t want to be a burden, or want to protect the other person. In reality, family members are usually feeling at least some of the same things: fear, sadness, anger, and disbelief, to name a few.

After getting the topic out in the open, it’s time to think about how you want to celebrate this year. Don’t hold on to traditions if they don’t feel right. If you usually decorate your house to the rafters and host a cocktail party and an open house, it’s perfectly fine to do only some, or none, of those things this year. Every year, we all search for ways to make the holidays less commercialized and more significant. This year, it is especially important to ask yourself what makes the holidays meaningful for your family and your loved one. It may be as simple as sitting on the couch with a cup of eggnog and looking at the lights on the tree. Watching Christmas movies.  Listening to Christmas music. Going to a lights display. If your loved one is too ill to go out, he or she may still enjoy the experience by seeing photos of what others have done.

The person who is ill can give the gift of memories to those he or she will be leaving behind by writing letters or creating videos. If you are a parent, your children will one day be interested in what your life was like when you were young/their age. What words of wisdom do you have for them when they get their first boyfriend/girlfriend? Graduate from high school? Get their first job? Get married? Have a child? For some people, it is too daunting to consider making videos/writing letters; it puts them face to face with their own mortality too directly. In that situation, I suggest trying to think about it from your child’s point of view, not your own. The reality is that all of us will die, but not all of us will have the opportunity to choose how we spend the time we have left.

“It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters.” —Mother Teresa

© Copyright 2012 by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Vera December 17th, 2012 at 3:42 PM #1

    I lost my mom to cancer last Christmas and this has been a very difficult time of year to go through this time. But I know that she is in a better place now and when I stop to look back on it I am at least glad that all of us got to spend time together last year and make the most of what we knew was probbaly her last. She made peace with her diagnosis and we did too and I think that that helped all of us when the end finally did come. It is bittersweet, but I hope to one day be able to focus more on the sweet than the bitter.

  • gail December 18th, 2012 at 12:23 AM #2

    My mum has been battling cancer for a while now, we all didnt think she would be here this time last year. Both my parents seemed to have decided to spend a quiet Christmas together this year, i dont feel right about this but must respect their wishes. I try to help out where i can but its hard as mum chops and changes from acceptance to deniel and dad just doesnt want to accept the cancer at all. My brother has caused so much trouble using parents and i am not talking to him, my mum had falling out with my sister and due to emotional pain my sister cant go back to see mum. What a sad family we are. Tried to be peacemaker but it hasnt worked out.

  • Neomi December 18th, 2012 at 10:22 AM #3

    It can be painful to know when you know you or a loved one has only a specific period of time left.But as mentioned here,it also offers an opportunity to do the things we want to before we leave.Although not a pleasant feeling,it does let us choose the way we want to spend our last days.It is so important to stick together as a family in times of grief.Because as they say,happiness multiples when you share and grief divides.

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