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Coping with Cancer Through the Holidays

Posted by Arona Martin on
coping with cancer through the holidays

We didn't know it was going to be her last Christmas with us…but in the back of our heads, we also kind of knew. So of course we made it over the top.

My friend Jessica's birthday was in early December. So when she passed away in July from cancer, I knew the upcoming holiday season was going to be especially hard.

It was going to be hard not having her there to celebrate her birthday, and not being able to do all the usual Christmas things we loved to do together. I went through a difficult few months that fall, and suddenly, it was December again.

In the past, she and I had shared a special December tradition. We would get all dressed up and go to The Drake Hotel in Chicago where we'd have one big combination Christmas and birthday night out together. We made a whole event of it, soaking in all the decorations and holiday scenery. 

So when Christmas slowly approached that first year with her gone, I was really feeling the weight of her absence and missing that special night that we used to share. But then I had an idea.

I decided to get some of my closest friends together for a mini birthday celebration of sorts. I specifically reached out to the friends that had been really supportive to me throughout the past year and I invited them to join me for a night out on the town in honor of Jessica.

They agreed that it was a great idea, so I started planning.

The weekend of Jessica's birthday, the 10 of us met at a tiny hair salon that I had rented out in Chicago. Everyone came in and we all got our makeup done, eyelashes and everything. Then we all went to The Drake to celebrate afterward. It was an intimate get together, and it felt just right for the occasion.

But little did I know that the night was far from over.

One of my close guy friends knew that Jessica's birthday weekend was going to be especially hard for me, so within a few hours of our group being there, he walked in with around 20 more people from our church.

It was such an unexpected but happy surprise, and soon it turned into a big party. It was a celebration for Jessica that I'll never forget. And since that day, we've been doing it every year on the exact same weekend.

Her birthday party weekend has grown even bigger now! Last year, we had over 100 people show up to celebrate with us.

To the newcomers, it's just a Christmas party, because they're not in the inner circle and they have no idea how it originally started. Because of this, I always make sure to make a little toast to let everyone know we are celebrating more than just Christmas and what the night really represents.

Since the party falls on her birthday weekend every year, it has now become a new tradition. It all started because we loved to go see the Christmas decorations at this one hotel in Chicago and now it's this big yearly event. I'm thinking about turning it into a fundraiser one day.

It's difficult to lose someone you love to cancer at any time of the year. But coping with cancer throughout the holiday season can intensify these feelings of loss even more.

We might find ourselves in a place of unexpected sadness and mourning instead of the happiness and excitement that we're used to around this time of year. And taking part in yearly traditions like white elephant exchanges, cookie decorating, dinner parties, and storytelling only makes it all the more obvious that someone we love is not there experiencing those moments with us.

They talk about 'The year of firsts" after you lose someone to cancer. The first time their birthday goes by, the first baseball game of the season they missed, the first holiday season they weren't there at the dinner table.

They say that the healing sometimes doesn't even start until you get over that initial hump of firsts. Like a cut that keeps getting irritated over and over again, until it's finally allowed to heal.

The holidays are a time of family, closeness, and tradition. It's a reflective and sentimental time, even in a normal dynamic. So of course you're going to feel everything a little more than usual.

People slow down around the holidays. They might be off of work for weeks and have very little to keep themselves busy or distracted. In general, there's just a lot more time to sit around and think.

With this combined slowness and all the reminders of that person around during the holidays, that's when it starts to hurt again.

You start to notice the missing piece, the void. You notice that they aren't there in the kitchen, or on the holiday card, or calling you to remind you to not forget the salad like you did 5 years ago but they still think it's funny to joke about. You notice all of it.

Traditions make their absence even more obvious. If you and your mom used to make cookies every year, and then suddenly your mom isn't there anymore, it's going to be glaringly obvious that she's missing, and you're going to feel that sting.

Experiencing the last Christmas with a loved one

If you know that the next holiday season will likely be the last one for your friend or family member with cancer, it can be a sobering thought. There's no perfect way to cope with this situation and the feelings that come with it, but here are a few things you can do that might spark some ideas for how you can make this season a little bit easier.

1. Change the timeline of the festivities

If that means Christmas in October, then so be it! If things are deteriorating quickly, there's no reason you can't celebrate your favorite traditions a little bit earlier than usual. Find out if celebrating is something that they would enjoy doing, and then you can make all the necessary arrangements to move the holidays to whatever month you choose.

2. Let the person lead

If they aren't up for celebrating, be ok with canceling everything and ask them if they'd like to do something different instead. Whether that might be a relaxing movie night, or if they just want to be alone for a while. Don't be afraid to throw out all your traditions and do whatever they are up for.

Here's how one family handled being in this situation -

"We are preparing for Christmas like we have always done over the years, with all the traditions. A few small gifts as well. It was suggested to keep everything as normal as can be. Besides, it could be the last Christmas for any one of us. Healthy or not. Values change when you realise that time is so precious."

Experiencing the first Christmas with an empty seat

Once they have passed, you'll be experiencing a different kind of pain. This can be especially difficult during the holidays whether it happened in the midst of the festivities, or earlier in the year.

Everyone copes with cancer loss differently through the holidays. As difficult as it might be to experience all these fresh feelings, there are some things you can do to hold onto the joy in the moment and honor the person you lost. Here are a few things that you can do to help cope with a loss during the holiday season.

1. Start a new tradition

If old traditions are too painful to continue repeating, it might be helpful for you to start something completely new. Eventually, you'll adapt to this new way of life and enjoy a new tradition. It will never be the same as in the past, but it will be good in a new way.

Another personal experience I had with this was during Thanksgiving one year after someone had just passed. We always celebrated the holiday with an intimate dinner of around 4 people, so for the first Thanksgiving afterward, I decided that I didn't want to host the dinner with just our small group because it would be too obvious that someone was missing.

We decided to completely change things up and start a brand new tradition. Instead of having a small 4-person Thanksgiving dinner, we went to a friend's dinner party that had around 20 people there. This made it much less obvious that a chair was empty, and we were able to celebrate in an even bigger way.

2. Get a special ornament (or small decorative item) that reminds you of them each year

Sometimes something small and physical can help you remember them once they're gone. In this case, an ornament, or (if you don't celebrate Christmas) a small figurine.

Make an event of it and spend one afternoon on the hunt for the perfect piece that reminds you of the person you're missing. You might find something that reminds you of an inside joke you had. Or maybe a trip that you went on together.

Another idea is to have something made especially for you. Etsy is a great place to have something personalized made if you want to include their name, a date, or a special memory.

An ornament (butterfly, cardinal, drum kit, etc.) is a physical symbol of them that will help remind you of the time you shared together. Not only will this help you feel like they are there with you, but it will also give you a special activity to look forward to every year after they're gone.

3. Honor the person with what they loved (even if you didn't love it)

Everyone has funny little habits and preferences that might seem a little silly to others. Did they have a funny way of folding the napkins? Keep folding them that way. Did they always bring a side dish that never got eaten?…make it again!

Add a little humor to the situation by memorializing a quirk they had and allowing that funny memory to live on. It's just one more way to keep the season as uplifting as possible.

4. Share some funny holiday stories involving the person

Get a group together and go around in a circle sharing stories about the person. Make sure they are funny or uplifting so it stays light and positive. You might even learn something you didn't know about them.

 5. Gratitude journaling

As I like to say, whatever you're looking for…you'll find it. It's important to stay positive and recognize all the positive things we still have in our lives despite the void we're feeling through the holidays.

Getting your thoughts and feelings out onto paper by journaling instead of keeping them trapped in your mind can be a very therapeutic process. Writing down memories and documenting gratitude in a physical way is a helpful way to deal with grief and boost your mental health.

If you've never practiced journaling before, take a minute to read through some of my journaling ideas in this post if you're stuck on what to write.

6. Make a memory book of favorite Christmas pasts

Another writing or scrapbooking exercise that can help you feel productive and get in touch with your feelings is to make a book full of all the memories from your past holidays. 

Depending on how you prefer to create, you could do this in the form of writing or journaling, or you could make it more of a collage, pasting photos and stickers into a book that you can open every year and add to.

Use our Big Hug Lap Blanket to create a modern memory quilt and add on personalized memory tags to remember special moments you shared together.

In conclusion, no matter how you look at it, coping with cancer through the holidays is not easy. You'll be surrounded by happy people, events you have to attend, and the continuous reminder that either your loved one is no longer here, or that this may be their last holiday season.

But if you can find a way to support or honor your friend or family member in a way that feels good to you, it can make things a tiny bit easier. Stay positive, focus on gratitude, and know that every year and every holiday season that goes by, you'll get a little bit closer to healing. And remember...may everything you to be BECAUSE LOVE!

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