Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

I wrote the blog post below six years ago, as I faced the month of Christmas cheer (and excess) with which we are inundated, regardless of our religious faith or lack thereof. Each year, I find myself re-reading this post, as I remind myself that many many people find this time of year difficult. The loss of a loved one, an illness, an estrangement, painful memories, or longing for the memories of years gone by. And for many of us, the memories co-exist with the happy times and new traditions we have with grandchildren, friends, companions, and colleagues.

This piece is a reminder to all of us to think about those for whom this season is a challenging one.


You can’t miss the fact that we are approaching Christmas, even if you tried to. Elevators and malls pump out Christmas tunes, newspapers and flyers are full of ads for the newest toys, gadgets, and must-haves. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, we are repeatedly reminded, in case we had forgotten.

But what about those people for whom Christmas is not a season of joy? Many of us set aside food and sundries for homeless shelters, buy toys for underprivileged children, send an extra donation to our favourite charities. It’s great that Christmas provides an opportunity for generosity and gratitude and I have no doubt that these actions do make a different, however small, in people’s lives. Today, though, I am thinking about a largely invisible population – people for whom Christmas has lost some of its magic, whether because of serious illness, a painful separation, or the death of someone they love. Where in this season is the place for these people amidst the shopping and celebration and feasting?

I grew up in a family where Christmas was a “big deal.” Though the gift giving would pale in comparison to the extravagances many people engage in today, still our annual rituals of new vinyl records, a new dressing gown (with a crisp new $5 bill in the pocket), a silver dollar in our stockings, the obligatory item or two of clothing, and a few “special gifts” for each of us. I can still remember the amazing service station complete with car elevator that I received when I was 10. The fact that my not very handy father had spent half the night trying to put it together made the gift all that more special. I’m certain that my sisters have equally vivid memories of their favourite gifts.

When grandchildren arrived, my mother got the chance to embrace Christmas full force. She loved buying special fancy clothing for her four granddaughters, and to “spoil” my daughters with elaborate toys I couldn’t afford. She was in her element filling stockings with trinkets she had found throughout the year – and expensive necessities (a roll of stamps, a pack of subway tokens, bookstore gift certificates).

All that changed when my mother suffered a brain aneurysm in 1991. Though she survived the aneurysm, she was left with considerable brain damage, and could no longer walk, speak clearly, or care for herself. Shopping for Christmas was clearly out of the question. Without our mother’s zest for Christmas, something was missing in “family Christmas.” It wasn’t about the presents – it was about how much my mother loved giving them. She took so much joy in being able to surprise us, to help us, to make us happy.

When my sister Carol died in 1997, “family Christmas” seemed to end.  Carol was that person in your life who always knew exactly what you needed, even though you didn’t know it until the you opened up the present. A set of dinosaur rubber stamps for my older daughter who loved dinosaurs and writing stories. A kit to make beads from wrapping paper. A beautiful sweater suitable for work for me (no one but Carol ever dared to buy me clothing). As with my mother, it wasn’t the gifts themselves that mattered. It was the fact that she knew us SO well.

It’s not that Christmas stopped after my mother became ill and my sister died. But that particular carefree (for me!), joyful, special family Christmas did.

Strangely, it’s through volunteering in hospice that Christmas was transformed yet again. Each year, the hospice asks people to take on extra shifts, as regular volunteers fly off for family gatherings or stay home to cook and be with their own families. The year I graduated from the hospice course (2001) I eagerly signed up for extra shifts. I expected the hospice to be a sad and dreary place, as families celebrated their last Christmas together, or their prepared for their first Christmas without Mom (or Dad).

When I walked into the residence that year, I could hear singing coming out of Room 4. Jingle Bells. Joy to the World.

“Who’s being so inappropriate as to sing Christmas carols,” I wondered. I soon discovered my answer. Room four was filled with family, bearing gifts, shaking Christmas bells, trimming the tiny tree placed on the nightstand. And sitting up in the hospital bed was the queen of the day, wearing a Santa cap jauntily placed on her head, and joining in the festivities.

“You folks sure know how to celebrate,” I remarked.

“Oh yes. That’s the kind of family we are. Since she can’t come home for Christmas, we brought Christmas to her!”

I have never forgotten that image, though it’s been 11 years. Joy in the midst of dying. Celebration of life.

I learned that year that many patients “hold on” until Christmas, dying shortly after. My own mother waited so she could be with her family one last time. It is indeed a special time – not because of the presents, or the turkey, or even the beautiful music. It is special because it is a celebration of life – new life – and life well lived. And so, as I approach this holiday month, I’ll remember those faces in Room 4 that day, their joy and cheer and love. And hold all of this in my heart.

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I wanted to share this article with all of you – I’m sure it will resonate for those readers who volunteer and work in hospice palliative care.

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We’re halfway through December already and for those of us who can never seem to plan ahead, it becomes a time of long line-ups at Chapters, frantic searching for gift ideas, all accompanied by non-stop Christmas Muzak everywhere from gas stations to the post office.

Beneath all that noise and frenzy, December is also a time of memories. I’m sure I’ve written here before about my own memories at this time of year – the happy ones of decorating the tree, hanging up stockings, and opening up presents as a child – and the more recent memories of my children and now grandchildren. And then there are the memories of the people who are no longer here with us.

Today is my mother’s birthday – she would have been 96 today, had she not died nearly 8 years ago on December 27th. My Mom loved Christmas: she would spend most of the months of November and December getting ready for it, buying the perfect gifts for our stockings and under the tree and baking shortbread and making special topping for the plum pudding. But as the day approached, she would worry that we might not like our gifts or that maybe she should buy just one more thing…

In 1988, the year she suffered her first brain aneurysm, she wasn’t able to go out to shop, so we “kids” (my three sisters and I) took on the task of shopping for her. I still remember her horror at my buying a black outfit for her to give baby Katie – and my pointing out that it had fabulous red blue and yellow buttons didn’t alter her views. I don’t know about my sisters, but I enjoyed shopping for Mom – taking away that worry from her – and surprising her with what I’d bought. In my memory it was one of the best Christmases ever – all of us pitching in together in a way we hadn’t in many years.

As hospice volunteers, we witness the ways that families come to terms with celebrating the holidays with the person they love who is dying. There are tiny artificial Christmas trees in some residents’ rooms – and Christmas cards adorning the shelves and bulletin boards. I’ve worked a shift right around Christmas Day every year for the past 13 (this year I’ll be at the residence on Christmas eve day) – and what always strikes me most is how genuine and un-fake everyone is. It’s not that families (or staff or volunteers) pretend that nothing sad is happening. It’s as if the knowledge that death is imminent reminds us all of what really matters most. Celebrating one another. Being present. Being open. Being brave even in the midst of fear and sorrow.

Once again, I will look forward to spending this time at hospice – supporting dying people and their families  in all the ways I can – being reminded of all the things that are precious in this life.

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Since my last post, I’ve received a number of comments from concerned friends about what a difficult time of year this is for me. I’ve very much appreciated their responses and concern, but the fact is, despite, and to some degree because of the losses I’ve had, I’ve come to appreciate and celebrate the very special things in my life. My two amazing daughters, now all all grown up, my fabulous son-in-law, my adorable, joyful granddaughter Charlotte, my partner and my friends, and all the special rituals we’ve established over the years. The “fake” Christmas tree that I finally bought many years ago after endless entreaties from my daughters. The odd-ball decorations we’ve collected over the years. The Christmas eve snow shoe outing. President Choice goodies for brunch (and dinner). The debate over which Christmas movie to go see (which never has a Christmas theme!)

Just before Christmas my partner and I will help prepare the Christmas meal at the Shepherd’s of Good Hope with a bunch of Buddhists from the Ottawa Buddhist Society. Hopefully I can persuade my partner (who is Jewish) to take in a holiday concert. And maybe I’ll get to pick up an extra shift at hospice.

There are many things to be grateful for, just as there are losses and sadnesses to remember. The Buddha talked about life being filled with ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. And as the old song says, “You can’t have one without the other!” (though I believe the song was referring to “love and marriage” and that’s another story!) In writing my earlier post, I was writing for all those people who are perhaps experiencing more of the sorrows than the joys right now. That is not easy, in the midst of all the cheer and commercialism. I want them to know that they are in very good company – they are not alone.



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