With the holidays come all kinds of Instagrammable moments: glittering light displays, smiling groups of picture-perfect families, smells of fresh baked memories wafting out of the kitchen, festive days of decorating spilling into nights of joyful parties. As many holiday cards and songs will remind us, it is the time of year for love, joy, and peace — and our expectation is that all will be merry and bright.  

But what if it’s not in your corner of the world?

Despite how much we’d like to press pause on some of these most blissful moments, the world does not stop turning simply because the calendar reflects a certain date. Over the past decade or so I’ve come to know this firsthand.

It was Thanksgiving-time when my father-in-law was first diagnosed with cancer. One year later the cancer had called him home, and our family was left mourning the loss of one of the greatest men I have ever known.

A month after he passed, my 4-year-old nephew (his grandson) was diagnosed with brain cancer. Fresh off the heels of saying goodbye to the man whose legacy we promised to uphold, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together in the public waiting room of the Children’s Hospital. To this day we are forever grateful to the doctors and nurses who sacrificed their own holiday traditions to work tirelessly to make sure that cancer was long gone and would never come back.

Several years later, my mother-in-law suffered massive heart failure just a week before Christmas and passed away quickly — allowing just enough time for all her children and grandchildren to hold her hand and say goodbye.

Through all of these hard moments, I was pregnant or had small children — sometimes both — and I had to learn to manage my grief and stress in a time that seemed, on the surface, impossibly far from joy and peace-filled.

Perhaps this holiday season you have a child in the NICU, a relative in the hospital, or you yourself are on bedrest. Here I’ve collected a few ideas I found helpful when going through these unexpectedly difficult times:

Keep Your Traditions… but Pare Them Down

Illness and loss often involve a lot of time spent outside the home — typically in sterile spaces — and this can be particularly depressing when we all know that “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” If you love to decorate:

  • Decorate your hospital or nursing care room: it is a potential way to incorporate your loved one into the fun, spend time with them, and lessen anxiety.
  • Don’t abandon decorating your own home — maybe you don’t have the time to drive out to a tree farm and cut it down yourself, but a small tree lighting your home through the window may be exactly what you need to keep your spirits up after a long day in the hospital.  

If you love sending holidays cards, and lots of them, you don’t have to abandon the tradition entirely. Choose a small handful of people who you want to write a heartfelt sentiment to. Send those. And don’t worry about everyone else. They will understand.

Connect with Your People… but On Your Own Terms

When unexpected events happen it can feel entirely overwhelming. Ask yourself, “what is the most nurturing choice I can make right now?” The world will still turn if you make the decision to stay at a party for only a quick stint to say hello. Alternatively, if cooking a homemade meal is the right step to reducing your anxiety so that you have healthy nutritious food stocked in the refrigerator, don’t to feel bad to forgo the party entirely. Invite one friend over to help you cook, and take that as your opportunity to make a mini party out of an evening cooking together.

Take Your Time to Celebrate… and Let Emotions Flow

It isn’t selfish to celebrate. After a loss we can often feel guilty taking joy in things. We can put pressure on ourselves to be sad all the time, and repress feelings of happiness out of a sense of betraying our loved ones. Throughout the season find a few blocks of time to carve out of your new norm to celebrate your traditions and memories. When you’re spending a lot of time giving all you have to care for someone else, it’s important to take a few moments for yourself. If possible, try putting a couple of appointments on the calendar throughout the season to do something that brings you joy.

Through all of the hard times, avoid the pressure to fulfil arbitrary expectations. These are uncharted waters and there is no standard way to navigate them. You will likely feel a rollercoaster of emotions as your holidays depart so far from what you’ve experienced in the past or what you hope for your family. That’s ok. Let them come. Sometimes “peace” simply means forgiving yourself for feeling anxious, sad, happy, joyful — and letting yourself feel those feelings— so don’t let the images on the holiday cards define it for you.