Sensitivity for the Season

Sensitivity for the Season

By Crystal Hayduk

            Let’s face it. The holidays can be hard. Although it’s easy to identify one’s own burdens, it can be challenging to also be sensitive to the suffering of others.

            Our family had a series of rough winter holidays. For about a decade, each November through January held a tragedy or loss. As a result, grief has become a habit. Even when it isn’t fresh grief, the season holds sorrowful anniversaries.

            One Thanksgiving several years into this stretch, when my father-in-law was hospitalized, I attempted to lighten the mood during dinner by suggesting that those around the table take turns expressing gratitude. My mother-in-law firmly opposed the idea. “There’s nothing to be thankful for,” she said with emphasis.

            We were saddened that she couldn’t identify even the food or her home as things to be thankful for. What the rest of us didn’t know was that her husband had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order the previous day. They knew he would not live long, but led us to believe his condition wasn’t serious. He died two days later.

            The most recent tragedy was two years ago, when my husband’s brother lost his short, but intense battle with cancer. This year, I can’t shake the anxious feeling, or stop wondering what might happen next. The shrinking number of chairs around our family’s table hurts my heart.

            I remember how hard those holidays were for me then. But now that I’m on the downhill side of the roller coaster we call life, I’m mentally revisiting those holidays with fresh eyes of compassion for what the older generation experienced.

            As you make plans for the holidays this year, consider the brevity of life from the perspective of your loved ones. How can you promote lasting joy for you and your family?

            Here are some ideas of things we’ve done (or wish we had and plan to do):

1.     Let go of expectations. Trying to serve up a perfect holiday is a recipe for disappointment. I’m convinced that picture-perfect holidays exist only in posed photographs. 

2.     Have a conversation in advance. Despite the advice to let go of expectations, older folks and people who are ill yearn for the things they wish they could do, but can’t. Acknowledge their feelings and desires about meaningful traditions. Decide together what is most important and consider creative alternatives. For example, if Grandpa can’t handle an eight-foot live tree, would he accept an artificial tabletop tree?

3.     Extend grace to your older family members. They’ve lived a longer life, and experienced more loss. Holidays are a time when people profoundly miss those they have loved and lost. Ask questions, look at old photographs, share memories to keep loved ones alive in your hearts. Talk about happy and humorous times, too.

4.     Spend time together. Be mindful of special needs, such as mobility, toileting, or vision/hearing difficulties. But do find ways to pleasantly be together. Take a drive through the old neighborhood, talk about what it was like growing up in years past, let an older person teach a young person a skill (preparing a family recipe or handcrafts come to mind).

5.     If you must choose between things and time, always choose time. In case you forget idea #4, try to remember idea #5. Spending time with the people you love is the single most-desired gift of all. “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!” ― Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!