Over the last six years, I have spent every Christmas and countless other holidays at my dad’s bedside in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. At just 23 years old, I never imagined I’d be a caregiver, nevertheless responsible for coordinating doctor visits, arguing with insurance companies and spending countless nights in the ER waiting room. The holiday season can be an extra painful time of year. To cope, I have learned how to navigate the holidays without allowing grief to consume my every thought. 

The grief I am referring to is a unique kind of grief only caregivers can truly understand. It is a deep sorrow for someone who is still living, but only resembles a glimpse of who they used to be when they were healthy and able-bodied. 

I remember the first Christmas morning my dad was sick. The silence of the home was deafening as I recalled the year prior, waking up to my dad belting out Christmas carols, pots and pans clanging as he whipped up his special biscuits. 

Instead of running downstairs to exchange presents that morning, I was walking down the sterile hospital hallways trimmed with holly and the cries of patients in despair. 

Yet through my grief, I have found valuable lessons for how to enjoy the holiday season even in the midst of sadness and sickness. Joy and grief can coexist. I hope these tips bring you peace. 

  1. Carry on the holiday traditions even when it hurts. Since my father could no longer cook his signature dishes, my sister and I stepped in. At first, they were filled with tears, burnt biscuits and many proclamations of “I wish he could be here with us.” But over time we shifted our focus to truly cherishing the memories and feeling grateful for every moment we got to spend with him growing up. It can be very painful to recall those happy times, but I no longer push them away as I found that avoiding the pain manifested in grinch-like behaviors all season long. Instead, I choose to feel into them and remind myself of the words of Joseph Campbell, “Every feeling fully felt is bliss.” Bliss in this case is the immense love and sadness I feel for my family. I often sit as a witness to just how beautiful it is to love so deeply.  
  2. Let others support you. This was the hardest lesson of all. Over the years I would hear countless times from well-meaning people, “Let me know if I could do anything for you and your family!” I would usually cringe at the statement, thinking to myself that unless they could make my dad healthy again, it was a pointless and somewhat infuriating statement. It wasn’t until last year when I was feeling very depressed that I had this crazy idea to actually start asking for help (rock bottoms will do that to you.) It was quite a radical concept that took a lot of courage. I asked things like, Could you stop by the nursing home and see how my dad is doing this weekend? Could you make him a home cooked meal? Could you let everyone know at Christmas that I really don’t like to talk about his condition? Most of us weren’t taught how to accept or ask for help from others, but I am here to tell you that when people ask to help you, it is because they really want to. Take them up on it. You are not a burden. After all, if we aren’t here to help one another, why would we be here at all? 
  3. Reassure your loved one that you want to spend time with them. During the early years of my dad’s illness, I quivered as my he begged me to leave, “The hospital is no place to spend a holiday,” he would shout. I felt helpless and hopeless until I realized that all he needed was reassurance. As a child, I didn’t know how to parent my father and create a safe space for him, but over time I built up the courage to say the words “Daddy, there is nowhere I would rather be. I am choosing to be with you today, please respect that.” It isn’t easy, but your loved one will start to believe you eventually, especially since they would do the exact same for you.