The holidays are fast upon us, and many caregivers are faced with the question of how to make the most of this difficult time.

Last night I came home to a mailbox full of magazines and catalogs showing families with smiling faces gathered around festive tables; families whose biggest problem is what to get for the man who has everything.

It was really upsetting to flip through all these publications without finding a single helpful article on how to handle the holidays when you’re unable to celebrate the way you used to. Whether you’re the one who always prepared a Thanksgiving feast or someone who cherishes family time during Hanukkah or Christmas, your celebration will be impacted. So… what can you do?

I know when I was caring for my husband Steve and his mom, I tried to keep things as normal as possible for as long as I could. I had to start “abbreviating” the scope of my gatherings without totally eliminating them. There was even one year when we ended up ordering in the Thanksgiving Special from our local diner. It was clearly a difficult time if that’s what we were reduced to, but we were together and made an effort to be as cheerful as we could.

Once Steve was diagnosed with lung cancer, I began focusing on how to make the changes in our lives as seamless as possible; to keep a sense of normalcy was my ultimate goal. I’d always bought him gifts for every night of Hanukkah because it was such a treat for him. It didn’t really take any extra effort on my part and was a pleasure for me as well—so, I kept this tradition going. To create a festive mood, I’d get bundles of holly branches and hang some simple homemade ornaments on them for Christmas.

But as time passed and I became an exhausted caregiver, the holidays were scaled back more and more.

It’s an unhappy fact that people in general don’t want to be “brought down” by the uncomfortable truth of illness amongst their family and friends. Sometimes their nod to the ailing will be a phone call instead of a short visit. None of this is contagious. It seems that what they’re really afraid of is the reality that “This could be me.” If that’s the case, how would you feel if you were written off by those who were closest to you because they didn’t want to feel uncomfortable.

I’d prepare myself for this time of year by lowering my expectations; by thinking that any joy I could bring to the occasion was important. I’d gird my loins for the free-floating anger that filled the house. I understood it and had to let go of my own disappointment and anger, if I was to be the source of light and fun. If we were going to have any guests, I’d have to bring them all up to date—in advance— on how they could expect to find my husband and his mom. One thing I tried very hard to do was to keep health issues out of the conversation when we had company. Of course our guests were concerned, but I hated thinking of Steve and Syl having to recount their latest adventures at the hospital. The holidays were meant to be happy, and I worked tirelessly to that end.

With at least a third of the U.S. population acting as family caregivers, I for one would like to see more attention focused on helping this population cope with the holidays and the stress they bring.

Sitting around and reliving cherished memories through photos and stories has the potential to bring either cheer or gloom; of course these reactions will be unique to every situation. Caregivers need to evaluate the kind of response each holiday activity might evoke.

It’s a hell of a responsibility to have, when all you want to do is make everybody’s day happy.

And that’s why being realistic in your expectations of what this time can bring is so essential. There’s no way to guarantee a happy holiday season, but going into it with your eyes wide open is a good start. For sure, you’ll have to make play-by-play calls to keep your home on an even keel; but remember, you can only do what you can in the given environment. There’s no assurance everything will go as you’ve planned either. This one may have no appetite; that one may need to be the center of attention—family and holidays are fraught with tension to begin with.

So remember, even if your time ends up being disappointing, you did whatever you could.

About Adrienne Gruberg

Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.

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