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
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