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Cancer, Grief & the Holidays

This will be my second post-cancer-diagnosis holiday season. Recently, when I looked at family photos from Christmas of two years ago, before my diagnosis, I searched and searched for some kind of clue in those photos that said, you have cancer. Of course, there were none.

I looked the same, sitting there posed in front of the tree smiling away, totally unaware about what was soon to explode unfold.

That was the last Christmas before the shit hit the fan for me personally, but it was four years ago this holiday season when we received the devastating news about my mother’s cancer prognosis. In fact, we received this news on Christmas Eve no less, as my family and I were preparing to kick back, open a few gifts and enjoy the evening in the best way we could, considering my mother’s recent rapid decline.

I literally do have a cancer/gift connection and it is not a positive one. Hence, another reason I cannot entertain the idea of calling cancer a gift.

You might want to read, Cancer Is Not a Gift.

Instead, I received a phone call from my brother. He relayed the news we knew was coming. My mother’s metastatic breast cancer was spreading and it was spreading rapidly, as if in some sort of race to close out the year and our hope for her improvement simultaneously.

When I hung up the phone, I was in tears, but I carried on. That’s what mothers do. That’s what my mother wanted, especially on Christmas Eve. I also found myself asking, who makes doctor appointments on Christmas Eve? Who does that? Well, I guess my family did.

In addition, I felt resentment for a few moments toward my brother for delivering such news on Christmas Eve. Who on earth does that?

But of course, I had wanted him to call me. I would have been way more upset if he had chosen to not tell me the news right away.

Like they say, you can’t blame the messenger.

So, the point of this post is that even during the holiday season, bad things happen. Of course we all know this. We all listen to news, read newspapers or just hear things. Sometimes the bad things happen in your own family, and sometimes they even happen to you.

For many people the holiday season is especially difficult if they have lost a loved one recently, or even if not so recently. Holidays (or any special or not so special day) can trigger moments of unexpected, intense grief. These feelings can catch you by surprise.

In addition, we often have unrealistic expectations for the holidays. We work diligently to shop for the perfect gifts, bake the perfect goodies, display the perfect décor, present a perfectly reasonably clean house and work tirelessly attempting to make everyone else perfectly happy all while also trying to maintain a normal work schedule as well as our own “perfectly lovely” dispositions.

It’s a full plate, impossible under even the best of circumstances!

When you add grief, a cancer diagnosis, cancer treatment or any stressful component into the holiday mix, it’s no wonder the holidays can sometimes be difficult to manage.

And this brings me to my main message for this post:

Whatever you do this holiday season, it will be enough.

Perfection is over-rated anyway. Pick and choose things that matter most to you and just do those things. Ask for help. Cut down the number of items on all your lists. Enjoy the simple things.

(Here’s a link for a few more specific suggestions:  Twelve Tips for Getting Through the Holidays After Loss)

And perhaps most importantly, if you’re grieving, it’s alright to feel the sadness. It’s alright to grieve during the holidays too. Every moment does not have to be cheery and festive and maybe even shouldn’t be.

Allow yourself the freedom to experience all your feelings whatever they are.

Remember your lost loved one(s). Miss them. Talk about them. Feel their presence, even if it makes you sad. Even if it makes others sad.

Sometimes sadness is entirely appropriate.

And if it’s cancer/cancer treatment you’re dealing with, or some other significant anger-causing stress, go ahead and acknowledge that anger; admit how you’re really feeling. This doesn’t mean give in, give up or act out inappropriately.

No, it simply means acknowledging your true feelings whatever they are – even during the holidays.

Perhaps then you will be able to let in the joy as well.

How do you remember your loved ones who’ve died?

Do you find the holidays to be extra stressful or extra difficult?

Dealing with #Cancer and #Grief during the #holidays #loss #cancerdiagnosis #death #mentalhealth #christmas


Tuesday 8th of December 2020

Great post and my mom dying from Alzheimer’s and dad from brain cancer and my grandparents all dead and in a way I’m dead to my whole family it’s honestly next to impossible to decorate or even see when Hanukkah starts. I just can’t fart out a bit of tinsel this year. I badly want to set up a super light show and put a breast cancer collection lock box at the end of our 300 foot two lane turn around drive way and raise some funds but the lights are sitting in boxes and bags. Maybe if I wrap all the trees here in pink lights and ribbons someone will get it - but it’s disingenuous for me so I’m just stuck. Stuck stuck stuck. So I’m gonna try self publishing my poetry book already and that’s not going too far either. Some years it’s so hard. Now having had Nancy Siebel die - I just don’t know how to pull it up and out, you know. The only reason I’m going to even make dinner for Christmas is my stepson at 22 asked me to adopt him -he said you’re my mom, you raised me and I want you to officially be my mother because you already are. He called me mom last week for the first time - I cried. After 14 years and so much difficulty that was a gift beyond price.

Love you Nancy.

PS are the drains out yet? How do you feel?


Friday 20th of January 2012

So many inspiring posts and comments here! It's a blessing to me to have found this blog so I can read how others are coping with their own cancer and the loss of family and friends. Last summer I was diagnosed with cancer and the very same week we found out my father-in-law had stage 4 lung cancer. He was 84 and decided he didn't want to spend his remaining time going through treatments that wouldn't have saved his life anyway...on Christmas Day, at 9:30 in the morning, he passed away. My first thought was he wanted to spend the holiday with his late wife, who passed on 5 years previously. I wonder how we will deal with Christmas in the coming years, since that date will always bring up feelings of loss.


Friday 20th of January 2012

Debbie, I'm sorry for your loss. You've certainly been dealing with an awful lot lately. Thanks for saying such nice things about my blog. I truly hope some of the posts are helpful. That's my hope when I write them. My best.

The Big C and Me

Tuesday 27th of December 2011

"Whatever you do will be enough." Brilliant. Wish I hadn't been so busy pre-Xmas to have read this post! I am exhausted. But, I have had some realizations this holiday season, and next year I will be doing things differently. (I just have to remember that I said that!)

Thank you for a post that gets right to the heart of everything that matters. Holiday wishes!


Tuesday 27th of December 2011

Renn, Well, I'm glad you read it now! I don't think you are alone in coming to some of those realizations. I think this isn't a bad motto to live by all year round really. Although, admittedly it is hard to "practice what we preach" sometimes isn't it? Hope you get some rest! Thanks for the comment.

Jan Hasak

Tuesday 27th of December 2011

Nancy, what a poignant post! You've really captured the feelings of loss that many feel during this time of year when everyone is to be so cheerful.

I remember my late parents during the holidays by connecting with my brother and cousins. I called my brother Christmas Eve and we had a nice chat. His voice reminds me of the past, of our childhood together, and that is comforting. And I am getting together with my cousins in Napa in a few weeks. We love to reminisce about our departed parents, to bring back loving memories that are too painful if carried alone.

In the last few years I have found the holidays stressful AND difficult. It's not a loss as in a death, but the loss of a marriage and family. Terribly traumatic after over 35 years. But I manage, knowing other women are in the same boat and knowing coping skills like writing and journaling and painting. Nothing like it.

Thanks for the great insights. Jan


Tuesday 27th of December 2011

Jan, It is nice to reminisce with other loved ones isn't it? Shared childhood memories are pretty special. I'm so sorry about the recent traumatic loss of your marriage. That kind of loss is extra tough this time of year too isn't it? You are indeed managing from what I can tell and I know you will use this experience like you always do - to help others. Thanks for commenting.


Wednesday 21st of December 2011

Thank you for my new mantra: Whatever you do will be enough. This is my first Christmas after my diagnosis & I only recently realized that my ambivalence about the holidays is actually a desire to avoid them altogether. On Christmas Eve last year I discovered the lump that forever changed my life. I'm not familiar with holiday blues, but lately I've been thinking of how nice it might feel to just curl up in a ball & wake up when it's January.


Wednesday 21st of December 2011

Cecily, Oh my, it's no wonder you are feeling that way about the holidays then. How horrible discovering your lump on Christmas Eve. Cancer is so intrusive isn't it? I'm sorry you will always have that reminder. Hopefully after you get this first year behind you, it will get a little easier. I hope so. Well, just remember then, whatever you do, it WILL be enough. Just getting through the day this year will be an accomplishment in itself. My best to you. I'll be thinking of you. Thank you for sharing.

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