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Keeping Things in Perspective: Surviving the Holidays

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With Thanksgiving marking the start of the holiday season, I already feel the stress of added demands. There are meals to plan, gifts to buy, cards to order, decorations to get up, and gatherings to organize. These are common pressures felt by all, but for families of a chronically ill child or a family who has lost a child, the holidays can be especially overwhelming.

As the founder of the Children's Cardiomyopathy Foundation, I am reminded of the challenges of celebrating the holidays when I talk to families affected by cardiomyopathy, a chronic and potentially life-threatening heart disease. Over the years, they have shared with me their wisdom on how they survive the holidays. Their advice is applicable to everyone, whether a sick child is involved or not. As we enter the two busiest months of the year, here are five tips to remember:

1. Keep it simple
Make a list of holiday events and projects and then prioritize. Think about your emotional well-being and cross off anything that is not essential. It's not necessary for you to attend every family or office party. Instead, selectively choose to spend time with friends and family who value and understand you. Don't feel guilty about not committing to certain family activities or excursions, especially if your child's health is a concern or you are feeling emotionally fragile or overburdened.

You also shouldn't feel like you have to deck the halls of your home, plan an elaborate party or decorate an eight-foot tree. Instead of making mad dashes to a crowded mall for gifts, shop online or do something different for a friend or relative this year like make a donation to a worthwhile charity in their honor.

2. Keep your spirits up
The holidays can evoke mixed feelings. For some, it makes them feel uplifted and for others it can make them sad. Feelings of depression or resentment might arise if your child is sick, you lost a love one or you experienced another life-changing event. This can be difficult when everyone around you is joyful.

During these times, it might be a good idea to disengage from social media if images of happy families or children celebrating might bother you. It's also important to step back and gain some perspective. The true meaning of the holidays is about giving thanks and giving back, and it's been proven that doing good for others strengthens our own sense of well-being. This might mean volunteering at a soup kitchen or gather items to send to foster children. If you or your child has ever been hospitalized, it might be meaningful to collect toys to donate or volunteer your talents (singing, art, music, book reading) to brighten the day of someone staying at the hospital. Giving back to others feels good and helps to keep our spirits up and away from anxious thoughts.

3. Ask for help
The holidays are often a time when we take on too much. If you are caring for someone who is ill or trying to recover yourself, it is important to recognize your limitations and ask others to help. Family and friends often are eager to assist but they need guidance and specific requests. You can ask a neighbor or family members to babysit or make your holiday gatherings a group effort by arranging a themed potluck or a white elephant gift exchange. For families with a child or family member in the hospital, ask one trusted relative or family friend to manage health updates and to set up a volunteer task list or organize a meal train.

4. Schedule time for yourself
With so much to do during the holidays, it is easy to get caught up with daily demands and forget about yourself. However, everyone needs to recharge physically and mentally. The airline safety videos always instruct us to place the oxygen mask on ourselves first before our child. That means you need to tend to yourself if you are going to take care of others. Reserve time for yourself. Turn off the phone and computer. Go for a walk, exercise or meet a friend for coffee. During a hectic day, something as simple as closing your eyes and breathing slowly and deeply for a few minutes can help to reduce stress.

5. Don't expect perfection
The holidays appear picture perfect on TV and in ads, but we have to be realistic with our expectations. Few have the perfect holiday or perfect family. Learn to forgive yourself if you can't do all that you want. Realize that with any child, especially one who is chronically ill, you may have last minute adjustments to your plans. Don't be too hard on yourself; there is no scoring system for how you celebrate the holidays. The greatest gift that you can give yourself is to be at peace with your circumstances.

These five practical tips are a reminder to me on how to make the holidays less stressful and more joyous. The holidays should be about cherishing time with your family and friends and not worrying so much about expectations during the holidays. If you have advice on what helps you survive the holidays, I welcome you to share your tips in the comments section. I would love to hear about what works for you.