I never thought I’d be a caregiver at Christmas, but it happened to us when our girls were young. Without the help of family, friends, and strangers, we would have had a rough holiday.
November marks another National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize, support, and listen to family caregivers. Everyone talks about a cancer journey, or the toll the aging process takes on our nation. But this month we want to celebrate, listen to, and find new ways to celebrate the family caregivers in our midst. Each Sunday of November you’ll heart from a different family caregiver on ways to avoid burnout, care for oneself, or make crucial decisions. You can also listen to the Self-Care Hacks podcast for interviews with family caregivers.
When the Holidays Find You in a Hospital
“Guess what we did today?” Sarah’s voice bubbled with excitement.
“Tell me,” I answered, holding the phone close to my ear to block out the sounds of the nurses taking Pedro’s vitals.
“We went on our Christmas tree hunt!”
“No way,” I enthused. “You didn’t cut down a tree in the backyard, did you?”
“Silly Mommy,” Sarah laughed. “Of course not! Mor mor and Poppy took us!”
“How cool is that?”
“And guess what else?”
“You had to chop down the tree all by yourself? I think the axe weighs more than you do!”
“No. Poppy chopped the big tree down,” she said. “But I got to cut one down, too. My very own tree for my bedroom!”
I could hear Laura’s voice in the background. “Tell her I cut one, too!”
“It sounds like you had a wonderful day.” I struggled to keep the wistfulness out of my voice. We’d had a family tree-hunting tradition since the girls could walk. Each year, we’d purchased a Forest Service permit and went on search of adventure the first weekend in December.
Invariably, we got stuck in the snow at least once (Pedro’s favorite part of the adventure). We also had hot chocolate (Laura’s favorite part), sledding (Sarah’s favorite part), and laughter mixed with pine trees (my favorite part).
But this year, my parents had stepped in to carry on the family tradition. I swallowed down my emotions—a mix of nostalgia and gratefulness—and asked, “Did Mor mor remember the hot chocolate?”
“She did,” Sarah assured me, “and we had lefse, too.”
“What a feast,” I said, the smells and sounds of Christmas Tree Hunts past swirling around me, blocking out the antiseptic hospital smell.
But Would there be Presents?
“When will you be home?” her voice sounded wistful.
“Soon, I hope.” I breathed out a silent sigh. “It’s taking the doctors a long time to get all the stem cells they need.”
I heard a little sigh on the other end of the phone.
“The minute they tell us they have enough stem cells I’ll buy plane ticket home!” I injected my voice with enthusiasm and hope.
“And then we can decorate the Christmas tree!” she squealed.
“And put out the presents,” Laura’s big-sister voice reminded.
“Absolutely. The presents,” I said. Presents. There might not be many of those this year. A blizzard of 50-page hospital bills had started arriving at a pace we couldn’t keep up with. Even with top-of-the-line insurance through my employer, we could barely pay for all the expenses of fighting cancer.
I forced the maudlin thoughts from my mind and finished chatting with our girls. No need to dwell on the impossible, I needed to keep hope alive.
A Caregiver at Christmas
Every time I heard “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” come through speakers at the mall or a store, my heart sank, and a vice of dread squeezed air out of my lungs. How would I ever keep Christmas wonderful with our little family separated by distance and illness in the weeks leading up to the day?
No baking cookies for the neighbors. And Christmas shopping and craft-making for homemade gifts? Impossible. I couldn’t relate to anything in the song. If Pedro could only produce enough stem cells, we’d have a wonder, for sure. And having the four of us home together for Christmas would be beyond wonderful.
If you’ve ever cared for a family member through the holidays, maybe you can relate. Maybe you’ve mourned Christmases past and worried about Christmas presents. Perhaps you’ve felt your stress burying you beneath blizzard of what ifs and if onlys. You have permission to kick guilt in the gut and scale-down on your (and everyone else’s) expectations.
Hacks for Caregivers at Christmas
1. Have an honest conversation with your family about expectations. Let everyone in the family choose one easy tradition or small activity to participate in.
Depending on the age of the family member, allow each person as much autonomy and responsibility as possible. If Danny wants to make Christmas cookies, let him choose the recipe, find an adult (or older sibling) to help out, and orchestrate the event. No one needs to keep up with someone from a magazine.
2. Focus on the most important part of Christmas—Jesus. If Christmas is a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, make sure everyone stays focused on the goal.
Decorate a jar (or don’t, after all, you’re a caregiver) and have each family member write down a gift they would like to give Jesus. For example, someone may want to give Jesus more of their time. Another family member may want to give Jesus their worries.
Take time to talk about the gifts and how each family member will go about giving their gift. Set the jar aside until the next Christmas, when you can read over the gifts and have another conversation about how it felt to give.
3. Give yourself the gift of self-care. If you haven’t already started taking care of yourself, now is a great time to start. Healthy self-care helps us handle stress, and with the extra burden of Christmas stress, you need self-care now more than ever.
Hacks for Helping a Caregiver at Christmas
If you know someone caring for a family member over the holidays, maybe you had no idea just how hard the holiday season can be for a family caregiver.
How Can You Help a Caregiver at Christmas?
Tips for helping out a caregiver who cares for a housebound or neutropenic loved one:
1. Buy them a Christmas tree.
Caregivers don’t have the time, energy or money go tree hunting. Make sure you help them set it up, too. Check beforehand, in case the doctors have ordered no live trees.
2. Organize a stocking stuffing.
If the caregiver has children, organize a group to buy and stuff stockings for the kids. Deliver them to the caregiver far enough in advance so the caregiver won’t worry about doing it themselves.
3. Stuff a stocking with things a caregiver could use.
Caregivers can always use hand lotion, germ killer, travel sizes of Kleenex, shampoo and conditioner—whatever you think might make the caregiver you care about feel loved.
4. Bake something healthy for them.
Find out if the caregiver or the one they’re caring for has any health restrictions, and then bake some cookies (use whole-wheat flour instead of white, brown or raw sugar instead of white) or other treats. (Here’s a helpful link about patients with neutropenia and what they can eat).
5. Offer to put up Christmas lights outside the house.
If you aren’t comfortable climbing ladders, decorate shrubbery or tree trunks—anything to let the caregiver know you care about their happiness.
6. Gift cards.
Give gift cards that the caregiver can use or pass on to someone else as a Christmas gift. This will help ease the caregiver’s financial stress. Trust me, I wasn’t joking about the 50-page hospital bills.
7. Offer to prepare a holiday meal.
Organize a holiday meal with a group of friends for a caregiver and her family. Ask in advance, and check for dietary restrictions before you start planning. The caregiver may have cherished family recipes they’d love to serve, but don’t have time to prepare.
8. Take the kids.
Invite a caregiver’s children out for sledding, ice-skating, or any fun activity. Any caregiver with children will appreciate a few hours of down time during the holidays—especially when regular routines get interrupted by school vacations.
If the caregiver you care about celebrates Chanukah or Kwanza instead of Christmas, take the time to find out how you can help them through their holiday.
Home for Christmas
Pedro probably still holds the record at UCSF (University of California San Francisco) 11 Long cancer ward for the longest stem-cell harvest ever. I can’t remember how many days he had to return to the hospital for pheresis, but instead of the two or three days they promised, it stretched into weeks.
Four days before Christmas my cell phone rang late in the afternoon.
“We’ve finally collected enough stem cells, ya’ll can go home!” The nurse sounded as happy as I felt.
I bought tickets and we made it home to decorate the tree before Christmas day. Without the kindness of family, friends, and strangers, we wouldn’t have had a tree, gifts, or the money to get home.
It took a village to reunite us and help us celebrate that year. I’ll never forget the kindness that turned our Christmas into a season of joy and miracles. You can be part of someone’s village, too.