The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s have a dynamic all their own. As we recall holidays past, our minds catch on vivid memories.
For some of us, that time includes remembering a diagnosis, illness or death of a loved one. The contrast between public festivities and friends’ good wishes can push some people deep into their own sorrowful worlds. Even as the years go by, lessening the hurt, memories remain.
Approximately 3,400 people are diagnosed with cancer each day, meaning that each year, approximately 136,000 people, and their families, receive a diagnosis during the holiday season. They look out from hospital windows, to glimpse others in the holiday frenzy. In 2008, I became one of those family members.
Shortly before Halloween that year, my husband received his diagnosis. His outlook was my compass, as we juggled doctors’ appointments, radiation treatments, work and updating friends and family about his condition.
Our vocabularies changed, and our fears escalated. We voiced, for different reasons, what many are asking at this time of year: “What will the future bring?”
Added to our questions: “Is this our last holiday season?” and “What more can we do?”
We struggled for answers while deciding what we could share with, or ask of, our friends. Being a friend of a dying person can mean, as it did for our friends, providing support while also celebrating the holidays.
During that holiday season, we realized that we weren’t alone. Our room at Roswell Park was lighted up at night; I see the same lights now when driving by hospitals during these holiday weeks. I imagine family members sitting in those rooms, waiting for (and fearing) any news, while the decorations go up in the hallways.
It is so strange that facing serious illness during the holidays redefines time, as illness separates you from the events of the calendar.
Communication with people who are enfolded in illness, or grief, can be challenging. We found that the most helpful notes and emails were short messages, providing words of encouragement, along with a memory or two. For a little while, words offered an escape hatch.
My husband died during the holidays. Memorial notes within the obituary pages show how close in thought our family members remain. Still, we find ways to go on.
For some, maintaining traditions provides much-needed continuity. For others, seeking out new expressions of the season gives solace.
My favorite escape was transforming past traditions to meet current need. For me and others, this involves redirecting money and efforts, once put into holiday gifts to loved ones, toward local charities instead.
Sorrow can be displaced when the generosity of others is seen in the abundance of gifts under a charity’s enormous tree. Stuffed animals, trucks, bicycles and games provide a glimpse into a delight separate from the ever-present absence.
Last year, the base of The Buffalo News Neediest Tree sheltered four perfectly dressed antique dolls, contributed by a Western New York woman who was ready to pass her collection to children in need. The choice she made brightened up the holiday of a child. While gently closing the door on the past as it was, she opened the door to a re-envisioned future.