Five Ways to Celebrate the Holidays with a Sick or Terminally Ill Family Member or Friend

We all know the holidays can be everything from stressful and hectic to romantic, relaxing, and satisfying. Sometimes a combination of emotions encompasses the holiday, leaving us scrambling to figure out just how we really do feel. When you throw in the element of a sick or terminally ill family member or friend, you might suddenly feel numb and unsure of how to proceed through your holidays.

Many times what we need to remember is that our loved ones need us in their times of struggle. Whether they are hoping and waiting for a cure or beyond all hope, those who are sick or terminally ill really do appreciate our thoughts, prayers, and especially our time in visiting them and reminding them how much we care.


“When the harshness of reality assaults your everyday existence, there are bigger concerns than how to decorate your tree or which wrapping paper to buy,” says Joni Aldrich, author of The Saving of Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer (Cancer Lifeline Publications, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4392550-3-2, $19.95). “The thing is—unless you move to a cave!—the holiday season will impact your life, whether you want it to or not. But if you step back and think about the true reasons for the season—mercy, caring, and humanity—the holidays that seem so difficult can also hold invaluable gifts.”

Author Joni Aldrich lost her husband Gordon in his two-year battle against cancer in 2006. In her book, The Saving of Gordon, she offers the following tips on five ways that you can celebrate the holidays with a sick or terminally ill friend or loved one.

1.    “Don’t wait for the “right time”—just go.”
“Visiting an ill loved one is going to be hard. Know that, and choose to move forward anyway,” says Aldrich. “When you do visit, consider the needs of the patient and his or her family. Call in advance, and take your cues from the family regarding the duration of your visit. Consider the well-being of the patient, and err on the side of caution when choosing to visit. If you are under the weather yourself—even if it’s just a sniffle or a cough—consider a phone conversation instead, or wear a mask. Also, avoid wearing strong perfumes or colognes.”

2.    “Visit the patient and the caregivers.”
“Whatever you do, don’t avoid the family because you are uncertain of how to approach them in a difficult situation,” instructs Aldrich. “Call often, bring food, and offer prayers. These ‘gifts’ will be appreciated by the patient and by his or her family. It is very painful when the family expects that support, and ultimately doesn’t receive it.”

3.    “Avoid preconceived expectations.”
“Always gauge the patient’s mood as acutely as you can,” Aldrich says. “It’s helpful if she is forthcoming about what would give her the most comfort, but she may not be able to express her feelings and needs that easily. Make the visit about the patient, whether that means that you end up laughing, crying, reminiscing, or even leaving until a more convenient time.”

4.    “Be sensitive to changes in the holiday routine.”
“If a holiday party does take place, take extra care not to go off into a corner to whisper with other friends and acquaintances,” Aldrich urges. “The last thing your ill loved one needs or wants is to feel like he is the cause of speculation or sadness. Similarly, there will be tears, so let them come. Sometimes the patient won’t want to see them, so you may have to steal some private time. Whatever you do, don’t shut yourself off completely from the patient or from your feelings.”

5.    “Remember that the best gifts can’t be wrapped.”
“Don’t forget that a hug is one of the most powerful gifts that can be exchanged,” says Aldrich. “A kind word is another. A sympathetic ear is often the best present you can offer, along with a strong shoulder to cry on. Make sure that your ill loved one and his or her family know that you are available to help at any time, whether that means a grocery store run, an extra pair of hands to help hang holiday decorations, a night out for the patient’s family, or going to get a prescription filled. Prayer is the most blessed gift of all—pray together, pray separately, and pray often.”

“Ultimately, you will be blessed because of the comfort and love you have given to a family who needs it,” promises Aldrich. “You will have experienced the true meaning of Christmas—giving a gift to others that is much more valuable than anything you could ever wrap in a box. This holiday season, the precious time you spend with your ill loved one will offer hope and comfort, and it will supply precious memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

About the Expert:
Joni James Aldrich is the author of The Saving of Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer (Cancer Lifeline Publications, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4392550-3-2, $19.95) and The Cancer Patient W-I-N Book: Our Cancer Fight Journal and of the upcoming book The Losing of Gordon: A Beacon Through the Storm Called “Grief.” For more information, please visit You can buy The Saving of Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer on (plus it’s eligible for free super saver shipping!).

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