Coping with a serious illness during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special days is especially difficult. Emotions come to the surface and are more intense. You may feel you don’t have the holiday spirit. Your mind is filled with worries and thoughts about “how it used to be.” Your heart is heavy.

Even so, you may think, “Whoa — we’re not grieving here!” I gently suggest that grief is about loss, and loss is about change. Being ill or loving someone who is ill is about loss — of health, lifestyle, plans, dreams, savings and relationships. When you’ve had a significant loss, you’ll never be the same. You’re on a journey toward a new “normal.”

Knowledge is power. If you know what to expect, you can be prepared. The anticipation of special days can be worse than the 24 hours of the special day itself. Make a plan and have allies. Having a Plan B is also helpful.

When things are out of your control, think about what you can control and keep options open.

Here are some helpful suggestions from “The 3 Cs: Guidelines for Grieving” (hospicefoundation.org).

Choose

Do what is important to you. Put energy into that. Giving extraordinary meaning to something ordinary makes it a ritual. Is this the time to start a ritual or keep a tradition with special meaning for your new way of life? Spending time with certain people and lighting a candle at dinner, buying a meaningful ornament for yourself and family or attending a special service may be your choice.

Communicate

Tell people what you want or need. Expressing your concerns or fears helps friends and family understand what you’re feeling and how they can help you. If you don’t know what these are, take time to discover them by listening to your body, praying, reading or attending a support group.

Beware! Grief can rewrite contact lists. Keep the people you value close by letting them love you. Keep out others who are hurtful.

Compromise

Do what works for you. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve and no timeline. Be flexible and make changes as needed. For example, you may leave a holiday dinner before presents are opened, if that part of the day will be too painful. Pick a safe place and safe people to be with. Reaching out to others in need (even your own family) is another way to soothe an aching heart.

If you’re helping someone who is grieving, meet them where they are. Don’t try to “fix” them. Be an active listener and give permission to express feelings. Offering practical help, such as preparing food, laundering clothes, shopping or cleaning shows you care — not only at the time of the illness but in weeks and months ahead.

These resources may be helpful:

There are multiple ways to grieve and multiple ways to heal and have joy in the midst of the pain. Peace to you, as you make your journey.

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About the Author

Sandra Wolf, RNC, MSN, CT, is a certified thanatologist and bereavement coordinator who works with patients, families and staff at Froedtert Hospital.

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