There is real grief associated with missing out on the traditions and rituals we’re accustomed to enjoying this time of year. I truly get it. My older daughter was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2012, when she was 11. That first holiday season post-cancer was hard. She’d undergone six weeks of chemotherapy, lost her hair, and ended up needing a liver transplant.
That year, the tumor in her belly grew so large that she looked pregnant. We waited on eggshells for a call from her doctors saying they had a viable liver donor. We planned for Thanksgiving and Christmas, hearts in our throats, knowing that she could easily spend both holidays in the hospital.
After that first harrowing year, we would have four more holiday seasons with Ana. There was never any certainty that she would be home — or alive — for the holidays. Each and every Thanksgiving and Christmas was dominated by the cancer that evaded every treatment and protocol her doctors threw at it. The very last Christmas was by far the hardest. The tumors had spread throughout her abdomen and lungs, growing so large in her lungs that they impacted blood flow and breathing.
She was weak, feverish, and perpetually short of breath. She was as pale as a ghost. They call it air hunger and it happens with COVID-19 too. Have you ever seen someone starved of oxygen? I have. You don’t want to die that way and you definitely don’t want your child, or your elderly grandma, or your uncle with asthma to die that way.
Which brings me to the 2020 holiday season. I have some words of advice for those of you that may be on the fence about seeing family this year. Should you risk it? How can you possibly cancel Thanksgiving or Christmas? What will the holidays look like if you can’t be with your family? I’m kind of an expert at this. I had to wing the holidays for five years, and then reinvent them after I lost my child. Here are some things to keep in mind that may help make the choice easier.
Lower your expectations
There’s no getting around the fact that canceling the holidays will suck. There will be exactly three people in my house celebrating Thanksgiving this year, including me. We’re not even getting a full turkey. My husband’s roasting turkey breast and we’ll do a few side dishes. I’ve already let go of my expectations for a more robust feast with family, the kind of celebration that helps me weather my grief during the dark winter months. I urge you to do the same. I know it’s hard, but the life you save could be your own, or your parent’s, or someone else’s medically fragile child (and, yes, I am thinking about how my older daughter was immunosuppressed after her liver transplant in 2013.)
Hang on to some traditions this year, but create new ones too
This approach has been life (and sanity) saving for me throughout many uncertain holidays. So, you’ve decided to stay home or cancel your extended family Thanksgiving. Good for you! But that doesn’t mean you have to dispense with all of the things you love about the holiday. I still plan to bake the cookies I bake every year and serve to the 9 or 10 people that we have over for the holiday (more for me!) But I also plan to take a morning walk on Thanksgiving (weather permitting), something that I’ve never done because I’m usually frantically cleaning the house before guests arrive.
Reach out to family however you can
There have been some holidays when my parents missed Thanksgiving because of their health. In those instances, I reached out by phone or (more recently) text, sent cards, and just checked in frequently with them on and around the holiday. No, it’s not the same as seeing them there at the table, but it does help take the sting out of missing them. This year, many of us have Zoom and other video conferencing apps that let us check in. Yes, it can be awkward and feel empty to talk over Zoom, but see my advice on lowering your expectations. The holiday season of 2020 is about surviving as best we can. Hopefully we won’t have to make this choice again next year.
Make plans as if your child has cancer
I realize this is a difficult ask. You don’t want to think about your child having cancer, much less plan a holiday around the possibility. But bear with me for just a minute. When Ana was sick, we had to adjust our lives around her illness. We became germaphobes. We removed all the towels from the bathroom and replaced them with paper towel dispensers because she was susceptible to mold and bacteria. We asked people not to reach into food dishes to taste things with their hands (again, because of the risk germs posed to her). We made sure no one was sick before we had people over and that meant we had to skip a holiday or two. If she’d gotten an infection, she would’ve ended up in the hospital. That was the best case scenario. Even a cold could’ve killed her within the first year after her transplant.
With this in mind, it’s hard for me to understand how skipping the holidays is even a choice. I mean, the virus is everywhere. I could be walking around with it and not know it. I could give it to my mother or my sister-in-law or my nieces.
They could all just as easily give it to me. That’s a terrifying thought. I have a deep understanding of loss — the kind of loss that shatters your entire worldview, leaving you bereft. I don’t think the same way that I once did — believing in luck, hoping for the best, and taking risks as if really bad things couldn’t happen to me. They can happen to me. They did happen to me. And they can happen to you too.
The choice you’re facing right now about whether or not to cancel the holidays isn’t really a choice. You should stay home and stay away from everyone but your immediate family. That’s the best way to remain safe and to keep your loved ones safe. Think of it as a lesson in resilience. If you can get through this holiday season with your life (and holiday spirit) intact, then you can weather anything. You’re trading one Thanksgiving for ten, twenty, or forty more.
I know nothing is certain and you want to live your life, but the stakes are higher this year. If you gather, then this could be your last Thanksgiving. That’s not hyperbole — it’s a blunt assessment of what’s at stake from someone who will never sit down to a Thanksgiving meal with her older daughter again. Death is forever and forever is a really long time. Please plan this year’s holidays accordingly.