When the holidays approach our expectations rise, hoping that this will be the year that we remember everything as perfect. But when you live with a chronic condition it can feel like the odds are even less in your favor.
“The hardest part of the holidays is the unrealistic expectations my extended family has of us,” shares Liz C. “They truly do not get that I have long-term health problems. The best I can do is pray that God will give them a big dose of understanding each year.”
What most of us have come to realize over time is that the term dysfunctional describes nearly all families on some level. None of us function effectively, one hundred percent of the time. But that doesn’t mean we love our family any less. In a poll taken two years after the 9/11 tragedy, 78% of the respondents said their family was more of a priority than before 9/11—an increase compared with the 69% who’d said the same thing right after the attack.
Here are some ways to keep your holiday family gatherings going smoothly:
Have Reasonable Expectations
Lisa Lorden, former editor of Fibromyalgia Online writes, “[Illness] oftentimes makes [our loved ones] feel helpless and uncomfortable, and they may behave in awkward ways or simply feel the need to create distance. Their emotions of fear, disappointment and loss are often complicated by feelings of guilt for being healthy. . .”
Assume that your family loves you and that their lack of understanding or insensitive comments about your illness or limitations, come from their own awkwardness. Seeing your battle with illness worries and saddens them.
When I’ve had a bad flare during the holidays I’ve had some family members hardly mention it. I’ve also had them act remote and distant when I used a wheelchair at an amusement park for a holiday outing. Their anger and frustrations were at the illness itself, and not at me, but sometimes it felt like no one even noticed I was in pain.
Remind yourself that they do care, but they may not always show it in the ways you would prefer. Leona S. shares, “My family seems to think that they have to fix me versus just visit with me.” Although this can be frustrating, recognize their heart and just try to get through the day. They are grieving your illness too.
Let Go of the Guilt
When we live with illness we feel like the more we try to meet other people’s expectations the more we fail. “My family does Christmas like Martha Stewart,” shares Karey. “They always have large gatherings full of wonderful desserts and lots of presents with the fancy wrappings. When I show up with a few presents in gift bags, I feel like I’m not keeping up.” Judy says, “My family expects me to do most of the work [preparing for the holidays] because I don’t work.”
In Where is God?, Sherri Connell writes, “There can be a be a lot of resentment towards people with debilitating illness because they are not able to help out as much as they would like or even at all. It is very difficult for us to understand how they can say they are unable to lend a hand when they look perfectly capable.”
If you need to go take a nap, just do it! Your first priority is to take care of yourself so you can enjoy their company as much as possible. Just tell people you needed some extra “beauty sleep” and laugh it off. Or casually explain to them that you aren’t deserting them, but just taking some time out to take care of yourself.
Refuse to Bicker
Flanary Gareth, pastor of Glen Rock Church of Christ in PA says, “Refuse to argue. There are certain people who love to draw you into arguments because this is the way they get attention. When they draw you into an argument they feel like they are controlling you.”
If an argument begins to occur, just calmly walk away. Arguments will just drain your energies and your spirit, and in the end nobody’s opinion will have changed. Proverbs 12:16 says, “When a fool is annoyed, he quickly lets it be known. Smart people will ignore an insult.” Control how you respond. It’s tough, but worth it!
Researchers have found that just one extra 20-second hug—or 10 minute of hand-holding—can make you feel more happy and relaxed. Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote an article for Parade Magazine on families (March 7, 2004). “Take the first step. Don’t stint on hugs and compliments—and don’t forget smiles. When apart, write notes or send e-mails or videotapes of events.
Make yourself available to help out when needed. Or simply help without being asked.” If people have been out of touch with you and have briefly heard third-hand about the difficulties of your illness, they may not even realize that there are things that you are unable to do. Recognize this.
On the other hand, we can get so caught up in our own lives and the challenges of living with illness that we don’t take time to ask our relatives about their families. In the book, Young People and Chronic Illness: True Stories, Help, and Hope author Kelly Huegel explains to children how to address their siblings. We could all apply these simple lessons to our own lives:
Consider their feelings. When you let your sisters and brothers know that you are trying to see their side of things, they will be more accepting of how your condition affects them all.
How not to address a problem: “You know, I’m really sick of your pouting. You’re so selfish! My doctor appointments are more important than some stupid dance recital.”
Try this instead: “I understand that you’re upset that Mom and Dad couldn’t go to your recital. You must have been really disappointed. I know they would have gone if they could. We all would have. Unfortunately, this was the only time I could get in to see the doctor. I hope we’ll be able to plan things a little better in the future so this won’t happen again.”
Don’t let self-absorption or envy prevent you from reaching out to others and participating.
Don’t Discuss Your Illness
Despite how much you want everyone to understand, don’t use the holiday to educate them. No matter how much they love you they don’t want to hear about your colonoscopy during dinner. After going into details about your spinal tap and bed-rest you’ll probably feel disappointed and frustrated by their response: Kids will interrupt, cooking timers will go off, new relatives will arrive and spouses will uncomfortably leave the room.
You’ll allow yourself to be vulnerable to hearing their health advice, theories, and stories about friends of a friend who had the same illness. You’ll get looks of pity and awkwardness. Protect yourself from this, because it’s doubtful you have anything to gain. You won’t receive the validation you seek. It’s okay to share about your difficulties or mixed emotions, but do this with a trusted loved one, one-on-one at a different time.
Rather than saying, “I can’t,” or “I shouldn’t,” all day, be responsible for offering options that you can do. Bring a sugar-free dessert that you can eat and share with others. Bring a game that you enjoy playing. Bring your video camera and have people share their favorite holiday memory with you. Prepare in advance how you can participate. If working in the kitchen drains you, bring a craft project that the kids can do and you can oversee.
Take photos of the cousins to send to their parents after the holidays with a brief note. If you tire out easily, be creative about your contribution. For example, work on a family Christmas album after the holidays that is displayed each year. “We send a round-robin note by snail mail to invite and everyone,” shares Jewel Gieseke, who lives with diabetes and osteo-arthritis. “We all fill in what we are bringing for food and games and this seems to help a lot!”
Leona S. says, “Too much noise or too many people around me at once is bothersome now with this illness.” Know your boundaries and even explain them to the hostess in advance so your actions aren’t misinterpreted and feelings aren’t hurt. “We take two vehicles,” says Jewel Gieseke. “That way my husband can stay and I can leave peaceably. He usually stays seven hours; I can only handle three at the most. It prevents any arguments between the two of us about when we are leaving.”
Have a Sense of Humor
Humor can go a long way when it comes to families. None of us are perfect! Just watch any of the Chevy Chase, National Lampoon movies to get you in the spirit. According to the American Cancer Society, many studies have shown that a sense of humor literally reduces the stress and physical pain we feel, as well as increases our quality of life. And people who laugh regularly report feeling less anxious.
“My husband is from a family of six sisters and four brothers and they all have at least three children,” says Gieseke. “Needless to say we have had feuds in this family. I have found it a must to pray before we go. If they are not talking to us right away and looking cranky and I pray, ‘Lord, help us to get along with each other,’—they all of a sudden start talking back with us!”
Remember, Life is Short
Lastly, do your best to live Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you; live at peace with everyone.” We aren’t able to change other people, but we can do our best to give our best: an attitude of gratitude, an ability to show affection, the wisdom to know when to walk away and grace and prayer. Simple steps can assure that this is a season of family peace and not a season where a family is left in pieces.
About the author:
Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries and she lives in San Diego with her husband and son. She is gradually learning how to balance motherhood, family, illness, and ministry, but she still knows it will be a lifetime lesson. You can see the books she has written, including, Why Can’t I Make People Understand? at the Rest Ministries shop.