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How to Celebrate the Holidays When a Loved One is Terminally Ill

As happy as the holidays can be, they can also be difficult. When someone you love is terminally ill, it is natural to question if this is your last celebration together. How do you celebrate the holidays when the health of someone you love is in rapid decline?

Keeping traditions and making memories continues to be key. But if you’ve seen your sister at Thanksgiving or your parents at Christmas for most of your life and they are now sick, chances are you’re grappling with new challenges this holiday. In the face of illness, it takes a special approach to help everyone feel better about the holidays.

The Trick of Time

Long-term care experts are frequently faced with the question, “how long do we have?”

Although it’s often a family’s first thought, we do not know the answer to this difficult question. People react differently to treatments, medicines, and therapy; science is always evolving, and the human body is, well… only human. However, we do know that the time left to spend with your loved one is running out. It makes sense to treat every holiday like it may be your last one together.

Consider Asking What They Want for Their Final Holiday

Sometimes families wonder if they should tell the person who is ill that it’s their last holiday (if they don’t already know). The answer to this depends upon the situation. Time spent enjoying each other’s company, and not dwelling on illness, will make for better holiday memories for those left behind. But what about your ill sister, cousin, or parent? Having a private conversation with your loved one before the holiday may be helpful to find out if they would like to have anything special for this holiday. Maybe they would like to make new memories for family and friends; maybe it will be enough for them to simply sit back and take it all in.

Tread Carefully When Discussing Terminal Illness with Visiting Children and Other Vulnerable People

Children and other vulnerable people like elderly spouses, cousins or friends may not be aware that it is likely the last holiday for the person who is ill. Whether or not you tell them is your call, depending on the situation: will having this information matter to them in the long term? If so, consider having a private conversation prior to the holidays, in a language that they will understand based on their age or vulnerability. Sometimes telling a child or vulnerable person that it’s likely to be your loved one’s last holiday may make the celebration more difficult for everyone. The child may become afraid of the person, knowing that they are ill, frail, or passing away. This information may upset them to the point that the child shies away because they may not fully understand or be able to manage the news.

The Hardest Part: Preparing Yourself to Lead Others

Often the host or hostess will set the mood for a family holiday celebration. It’s important to do your best to keep conversation positive and cheerful, even if you break down in the restroom or pantry before the main course is served. Managing your emotions on this last holiday with your ill loved one may be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Involve your loved one by holding their hand or touching their shoulder to let them know you are there for them. Bravely talk about memories, all the special holidays you have had, and funny things that have happened in your family. Take pictures, share pictures, and laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

Focus on Others to Make a Terminally Ill Person Comfortable

Turn your attention to the holiday gathering itself to move beyond the darker side of the situation. Often the simple things will make your loved one comfortable; it’s purely about having family there. The sounds of lighthearted laughter, hearing the voices of the people they love, and listening to conversations brings them back to the many decades of special times they have shared. An ill or vulnerable person will often respond to smells; the scent of roast turkey or baked apples, a balsam tree, or the burning of a candle comforts them and lends a sense of support and enduring love.

When Gifting, Give Comfort

If gifts are part of your holiday celebration, make sure to include everyone. Think comfort for a person who is terminally ill or in rapid decline: soft blanket, neck pillow, soothing sound, music, aromatherapy oils, audio books, pictures of loved ones. Or gift an item that can be given back for a keepsake, for example, a teddy bear that a child they loved will treasure after their passing.

Illness and death are never easy, or convenient. When your brother, sister, cousin, or parent is terminally ill, it’s hard to be brave. The best support for all is to continue to celebrate the holidays with modifications and accommodations. Reserve judgment, try your best, make space, and remember that everyone must deal with illness in their own way – including you!

Vicky Parra Tebbetts is a freelance writer who loves all things Vermont. She writes on behalf of Mayo Healthcare, a locally owned nonprofit located in Northfield, Vermont, offering residential care, expert rehabilitation, and skilled nursing services. MayoHC.org, 802.485.3161.

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