Dealing with #cancer and #grief during the #holidays #loss #cancerdiagnosis #death #coping #mentalhealth

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?

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

35 thoughts to “Cancer, Grief & the Holidays”

  1. Nancy,
    Last year, the day after Christmas, James died unexpectedly. This Christmas, I’m closing his law practice and moving his other business to a smaller space. It will be a sad moment when I turn out the lights and close the door on so many wonderful years there. Like you, remembering your mother and her illness this time of year, I wonder if there will ever be a Christmas when I don’t think about losing James.

    Wishing you strength & good memories,

    1. Brenda,
      I forget that it’s not yet a year. I must say that you absolutely amaze me and just know we are all standing behind you and beside you…

      Nancy… GREAT post….

      “Whatever you do, it will be enough” ….. THAT, my dear friend is possibly the best and most comforting phrase I’ve read! As I stare at a tree not decorated and just realized I still have more than enough shopping to do…. but, whatever I do, it WILL be enough.

      Thanks, Nancy…..


      1. Ann Marie, My tree isn’t decorated either, but it’s because of the cat! There does seem to be a never-ending list of things to do doesn’t there? I’m trying to heed my own advice because I actually believe it’s true: whatever you do it will be enough. It really will. Thanks for the kind comment. And get done what you can!

    2. Brenda, I remember hearing about your loss shortly after it happened and being stunned by the news. I can’t begin to imagine all you have gone through during this past year. I’m so sorry for your loss and how it is now forever a part of your Christmas. Wishing you strength and good memories too, Brenda. Thank you for commenting. I’ll be thinking about you…

    3. Brenda – My thoughts are with you as this holiday season approaches. I hope you have some new things to look forward to and I will say a special prayer for James this Christmas Day.

      Nancy – Thank you so much for your beautiful post. Perfection is overrated! Whatever we do – it will be enough. I like that. Big hugs to you too!

      Merry Christmas ladies.

      1. Terri, Thanks so much for your kind words. Well, perfection is overrated don’t you think? I surely do. Big hugs back to you and Merry Christmas as well! Good luck with all your upcoming plans.

  2. I do find the holidays quite difficult now, emotionally and physically. Christmas, in particular used to be my favorite time of year – I love all the rituals of gift giving, shopping, cooking, decorating, but this year with the loss of my hand, all of these things are so much harder or impossible. So this year I actually feel quite left out and feel as though I’m sitting on the sidelines watching everybody else enjoy all of their traditions. This isn’t me feeling sorry for myself, it’s just how I feel. It’s a big fat reminder for me and hubby just how imperfect our lives have become. There I said it. Bah humbug!

    1. Rachel, I really hate hearing that you feel left out and are missing doing things you have always enjoyed doing at this time of year. I’m sorry about that. Bah humbug for sure! I think it’s really important for you to be free to state that. Like Being Sarah said in her post, cancer has pierced your life in a drastic way. Your lives may be imperfect, as you said and not at all the way you once envisioned them, but you are both wonderfully inspiring in how you choose to carry on and move forward on a daily basis. That’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s true none-the-less. Hoping you enjoy your holidays despite the fact cancer has forced you to “re-arrange” so much of your life. Thank you for sharing your truth here and on your blog.

  3. This year Christmas is especially difficult for me, as I have just moved out of my home (my boyfriend’s home) as he has expressed on many occasions that I cannot stay due to my lack of finances now that I cannot work due to my diagnosis. I can’t contribute any more financially to the bills/rent/mortgage etc. I am awaiting my public housing and have actually spent the last 7 nights in a hotel. It certainly does not feel like christmas time nor did thanksgiving feel like a celebration as i spent the day packing my belongings into boxes to be put into a storage unit. It seems that no matter what I do, where I go, how much I try to forget that my life revolves around constant doctors appointments. I just cannot get into the “spirit” of the holidays. The cancer and all of the crap that comes along with it just overshadows all of the joy of the season. How do I cope? To me it is just another day…and I am thankful that I am alive. This was the first year ever that I have not had a tree or put up any of my decorations…I do not have a home to put them in…yet.

    1. Laura, I’m so sorry for all the upheaval and uncertainty that cancer has brought into your life. You have faced, and continue to face, so much. I don’t blame you one bit for not getting into the holiday spirit. How can you without even having a permanent place to live? I hope you get answers on that front soon and I hope things improve for you in the coming year, Laura. Hang in there.

  4. Whatever you do will be enough. Thanks for that – it’s so true. I hope you have a good holiday and a good new year.

    My diagnosis will be a year Dec 21, the same date we brought my mother home from the hospital in 1990 to die (of breast cancer). She died 3 weeks later. I have Christmas and breast cancer and loss all linked.

    Best thing for it – just hang on, hang out, take it easy.

    1. 3laine, It’s ironic you received your diagnosis on the same date you brought your mother home from the hospital. Sometimes the reminders are pretty eerie aren’t they? I’m sorry you have a Christmas/breast cancer/loss connection too. Despite that, I hope you have a good holiday. I’ll remember your advice. Thank you!

  5. I took a vacation to California a couple of months before my diagnosis, and do the same thing you do…I look at those photos of me on the beach, totally unaware that there was cancer growing inside me.

    I lost my mom on the Monday before Thanksgiving, so the holidays have been very hard. I wrote a post last week about grief and the holidays:

    P.S. The Pink I mention is not breast cancer pink!

    1. Ginny Marie, I remember you saying that before somewhere, about the trip you took I mean, and the photos. It’s hard to not look for clues in those old pictures isn’t it? I’m sorry you find the holidays difficult. I will definitely check out your post. Thanks for commenting and for the link. Hope you have lots of good memories of your mom to help you get through the season and I know you are creating many new ones with your girls.

  6. I have to echo the other commenters, Nancy: “Whatever you do will be enough.” I loved this posting. I am so sorry and saddened by what happened to your mom. And it sucks that you then had a diagnosis of cancer. It’s an enormous amount of trauma.

    I feel a lot of grief throughout the year. It seems all the year is sprinkled with tons of cancerversaries. Winter is particularly hard on me. My diagnostic mammogram was on Dec. 26. That’s when the “shit hit the fan” for me. New Years found me crying, not knowing what was in store for me.

    Thanks again for your candor.

    1. Beth, Thanks for your understanding and caring comments. Yes, you had a nasty winter filled with much uncertainty to deal with back then. Like you said there are reminders throughout the year too, though. It’s admirable the way you have “come through” and have turned some of your struggles into a book to help others navigate theirs. How’s that proposal coming by the way?

  7. For me Dec 21st is my birthday and that is the thing I am getting emotional about – being here for another birthday when earlier this year life changed and there were so many unanswered questions yet to be answered.

    We live away from my family and unbeknowns to me my husband had declined my Dad’s wish to visit us for Christmas. I haven’t seen my Dad since surgery and all that has come after it and would have loved having him here. It’s hard to feel cross with hubby when he knew I would find the visit stressful, but the joy in getting a hug from my Dad is something that can’t be measured. My Mum isn’t with us anymore after a long journey with Alzheimers – it was her first anniversary the day after my mastectomy.

    I am doing what I can for my kids but with daily radiation sessions it’s hard going. At least the tree is up and decorated and there will be presents from Santa. In that respect I am blessed.

    Happy holidays, Catherine in NZ.

    1. Catherine, I don’t blame you for being emotional about your birthday this year. That’s very normal. Yes, it would have been nice I’m sure to see your dad and get that hug, but I guess your hubby was trying to keep things simple and less stressful for you. I’m sorry things are so hard. At times it’s all quite daunting isn’t it? Glad to hear your tree is up and Santa will be coming. Hope you and yours have a lovely holiday. And I hope you have wonderful birthday as well. Thank you so much for commenting. Hope to see you back soon.

  8. Nancy,

    Thanks for asking about the proposal. Believe it or not, it’s almost done!! Starting in the new year, I will be seeking out an agent and publisher (a full-time job I’m sure). No matter what the outcome, I am glad I went the whole way in finishing my book, a proposal, and a query letter. I will continue to write and won’t give up.

    Have you started working on your book yet? I know that was an interest of yours, and I know you can do it!!

    1. Beth, Congratulations on getting the proposal almost done! I’ve heard people say that’s the hardest part. Good luck finding an agent. I’ll be interested in the process because as you know, I have been attempting a book myself. I still have a long way to go…Thanks for asking. And thanks for the encouragement. I need it!

  9. Nancy, very wise words. This Christmas marks two years to losing my wife to cancer. Year One was the total pits but this year (talking about Christmas Time mainly )I have made choices about what is safe and warm for me, as well as how I can keep moving forward in my journey. Thank you for keeping on and sharing with all of us.

    1. Bernie, I’m so sorry for your loss. At least you have that first year anniversary of her passing behind you now. I’m glad you are making choices for what will work best for you this year as far as where you will spend Christmas. I think that’s very wise. You need to be some place where as you said, you will feel safe and warm. My best to you as you move forward in your grieving. It’s an ongoing process isn’t it? I hope you have many wonderful memories of your wife to hold on to. Thanks for commenting, Bernie.

  10. It’s so hard to hear about how many of us are having a difficult time with life right now. There are friends here that make me wish I had a magic wand to fix things. But life is what happens when we’re making other plans, that’s for sure.

    ‘Whatever you do…it will be enough.’ Those have become my bywords for sure. The first Christmas after cancer was only a few months after I’d finished acute treatment, so I was determined to have Christmas dinner at my house as I usually did. And it was lovely. But within a few months, fatigue, pain, cording, and all the other long-term side effects caught up with me & I had to cut my work hours, go on drugs, stop other drugs, get PT, and mightily readjust my life. The two Christmases since, last year’s and this year’s, reflect a serious ‘downsizing’ that mirrors the downsizing of my income & energy. But in the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about being able to ‘forgive’ myself for not feeling normal anymore and about being content with what I have. It’s a hard lesson,one I have to relearn regularly. And yet, it seems to me that’s what the holidays really mean, to forgive ourselves, do what we can, and find some cause for gratitude — to want what we have, not to have what we want.

    Lovely post, Nancy, once again.

    1. Kathi, Yes, a magic wand would be nice wouldn’t it? I wonder why you were so determined that first Christmas to carry on like always. I guess maybe you were trying to “prove” something to yourself. We learn as we go along don’t we? It’s so important to forgive ourselves. I think it’s really hard for women to do that. I really do believe those words, “Whatever you do, it will be enough.” Just saying the words takes a lot of pressure off and I don’t just mean regarding Christmas. I’m glad you are being more forgiving of yourself and have found a new contentment. I hope you enjoy this holiday, Kathi, in whatever way that brings you happiness.

  11. Today is the 2nd Anniversary of my father’s death. We buried him Dec 23.
    I was always very close with my father and I admit today is a difficult day.My father was diagnosed with prostrate cancer years ago. He lived for a considerable number of years but with age (85) other issues came in to play. My dad had a massive stroke and he was gone. He never knew I had Breast Cancer he was suffering from dementia.He had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes. I miss him..We have not had a family Christmas in over 13 years since my mother died. This year my finances are not in good shape Cancer wreaks havoc on your pocket book!!I usually love the holidays. It will be my son and I we will make the best of it in spite of things….

    Nancey I hope you and your family have Peace & Blessings!!
    Love Alli xx

    1. Alli, I’m so sorry about your dad. It’s hard to have those memories at this time of year isn’t it? It’s sad in some ways he didn’t know about your breast cancer, but then again in other ways, it’s nice he didn’t have to know about your anguish. That’s the way I look at my mom’s not knowing about mine. It would have been very hard for her to know…I understand about the finances; cancer has a way of hitting the pocket book. I hope you and your son have a peaceful holiday, Alli. I know you will make the best of it, as you said. Thanks for sharing about your dad. I hope doing so helps a bit as you miss him. Hugs.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. 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.

  14. “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!

    1. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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?

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