After my husband suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2005, the holidays didn’t seem so merry.

I found myself yearning for our life before Don became paralyzed from the neck down and had to use a respirator to breathe. Everything about the holiday season seemed to emphasize how our old life was gone and how our present reality was nothing either of us had wanted.

Those first couple of holiday seasons were an often painful challenge. How could I manage the expectations and activities? How could I get through the holidays or, even better, make them a fun time of year again?

It took me a couple of years to figure out a way, but I eventually found methods to again bring joy into this special time of year.

Most of the changes I made involved looking at my world in a different way that recognized and accepted the new reality. For example, Don and I used to enjoy going to parties and festive events. However, in our new circumstances, each venture out of our home was a major undertaking. So what could I do?

I hated missing both the fun parties and the simple Christmas gatherings, and sometimes I even felt that the world had forgotten about us. However, most of the time I knew that our friends and family wanted to find a way to share holiday revelry with us, and I eventually realized that there was a simple way to make it happen.

I could invite them over.

To make hosting easier, I often requested that my guests bring their own drinks or that the food be potluck. People generally want to find a way to help, and I found they were happy to lighten my load. The gatherings were usually simple, such as hosting another couple for cocktails or inviting our grandchildren over to decorate gingerbread houses. I chose the time and number of guests that would work for both Don and me. By doing this, I made the holidays more joyful for both of us, and we stopped feeling like we were missing out on all the fun.

Another deceptively simple thing that I did was alter my focus. I realized that I had been thinking about how things used to be during the holidays and wishing that I could somehow recreate those times. But this wasn’t possible, and wishing for the impossible left me feeling both sad and unfulfilled.

I started making an effort to focus instead on the many blessings I did have. By thinking about my blessings instead of my challenges, I found that a weight lifted and both my mood and my life in general improved. By making a habit of changing my focus, I was able to bring much more happiness into my world.

A last thing I did was make time to take care of myself. When most of your time is dedicated to caring for someone else, it’s easy to get worn down. This is true every day of the year, but during the holidays, the demands increase and self-care becomes even more important. It wasn’t possible for me to take care of my husband well if I didn’t make sure that I also took some time to take care of myself.

I found that the best way to make certain this happened was to schedule time for self-care just as I scheduled doctor’s appointments and other necessary activities. I might write on the calendar for example that on Tuesday from 3-5 p.m. would be set aside for me to do whatever I wanted to do. I would also make certain that Don was aware of this appointment with myself. During this time, I usually didn’t do anything very exciting. I lounged in the bath or curled up with a book. What I did didn’t matter; it only mattered that I took some time for myself.

So try to simplify your holiday activities and don’t be resistant to starting new traditions. But always remember to take some special time over the busy season for yourself. By embracing a new approach to the holiday season both internally and externally you will bring the joy back to this special time of year for you and your loved ones.


Kathi Koll is the founder of The Kathi Koll Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to providing meaningful support to family caregivers, and the author of Kick-Ass Kinda Girl: A Memoir of Life, Live and Caregiving. Learn more and read an excerpt at KathiKoll.com.