Heath Tip: Coping with Illness during the Holidays

Dr. Christine Dietz

By Christine A. Dietz, Ph.D., L.I.S.W., Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center


Living with cancer or a chronic illness is challenging at the best of times, but especially during the winter holidays. Although it may be a joyful time of year, when we are ill we may feel too tired, depressed or anxious to celebrate. We may also feel overwhelmed with expectations (ours or others’) to do everything we’ve always done. We may feel obligated to be happy and cheerful while feeling sad and scared inside. How can we celebrate a meaningful holiday season while dealing with illness?

Holidays are “holy” days – days of holiness and days of wholeness, days to which we bring our whole selves. The words “holiness” and “wholeness” are connected in many languages, as are the words “wholeness” and “wellness.” Holiness means bringing our whole selves to whatever we are doing, from whatever state of wellness we are in at present. If we need to receive more than give at a particular time, then wholeness means acknowledging that and making decisions and plans that reflect our needs to receive as well as give.

The winter holidays take place at the solstice, when the days have reached their shortest point and light begins to increase.  One meaning of these holidays is to celebrate light in darkness, the turn from the darkest days toward ever increasing light. This is expressed in different ways in different religious traditions – by lighting candles, celebrating the solstice or the newness of birth. These holidays bring attention to the coexistence of both light and darkness. Making room for that both/and thinking can help us celebrate meaningful holidays while dealing with illness. Maybe we can be both tired and grateful for the love of family. Maybe we can participate in a holiday celebration and also attend to needs for rest and quiet. By being mindful of our needs and experiences in each moment, we will be better able to determine how we want to participate in holiday celebrations.

As you consider how you want to celebrate this year, it is helpful to think about what these holidays mean to you. You may want to reflect on some or all of the following questions:

  1. What is special about this holiday for you?
  2. What are its most important aspects?
  3. What family or personal traditions are most meaningful to you in this holiday?
  4. What do you need from this holiday this year?
  5. What balance would you like to achieve between giving and receiving? What would you like to give? What would you like to receive?
  6. How might you bring holiness into this holiday?

Holidays can be stressful, even when they are very meaningful. This can be particularly true when you or a loved one is dealing with cancer or another chronic illness. When we are depressed or anxious, the holidays can be a time of dread, especially when we have high expectations that we feel unable to meet. Allow time for rest and reflection as well as time to be with whatever painful feelings arise during this time. Take extra care to find a supportive person with whom to share these feelings. Try to cultivate a both/and perspective: I can feel sad AND loving at the same time; I may be anxious AND I can still enjoy this holiday music/event/tradition, etc. And avoid overdoing – overspending, overexerting, over-expecting.

Here are some things to consider as the holidays approach:

  1. Focus on the most meaningful aspects and traditions of the holiday. Develop your own rituals, such as a gratitude practice or sharing meaningful stories and memories, to celebrate these moments.
  2. Don’t try to make this holiday season exactly the same in previous years – adapt your celebration to fit your current health situation.
  3. Use this opportunity to develop more meaningful and less stressful traditions.
  4. Rest even more than usual – emotional stress is exhausting.
  5. This year, learn to receive. Connect to spiritual teachings about receiving within your tradition. Allow others the joy of giving to you.
  6. Delegate some of your usual tasks and responsibilities to others.
  7. Use stress management techniques – breathing, mindfulness, relaxation, visualization, journaling, body work and exercise.

With attention to the holiness of the holidays as well as our own wholeness and wellness, we can create meaningful holiday celebrations, in spite of illness.

Christine Dietz is a licensed independent social worker, spiritual director and Reiki Master. She is the Center’s Director of Clinical Training. She received her M.S.W. from the University of Iowa and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a graduate of the Lev Shomea Training Program for Spiritual Direction in the Jewish Tradition. Christine’s focus in counseling is on helping people reconnect to their innate wholeness and renew their sense of hope and possibility. She works with people experiencing anxiety, depression, OCD, trauma, life transitions, chronic illness, grief and loss, and relationship issues. She also offers individual and group spiritual direction to people from all faith traditions. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and Spiritual Directors International.

For more Health tips from the Center: www.dmpcc.org/healthtips

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