Any time of year, coping with a loved one in the hospital can be challenging. Your loved one is in pain, so you are, too. You feel guilty that you can’t spend 24/7 with him or her, and you worry when you are not there to help. If you have others, like children, who rely on you, you’re split two ways. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted.
Now throw the holidays into the mix. All your comforting rituals and routines are disrupted. How will you pull the big holiday dinner together? When will you find time to buy gifts? Who’s writing and sending out the Christmas cards? Will there be time to make latkes with the kids for Hanukkah? How can you hope to meet all the usual holiday expectations?
To get some advice, we spoke with Laura Cohen Romano, MSW, Einstein Healthcare Network’s Director, Spiritual Care and Mindfulness, and one of Einstein’s staff chaplains, Rev. Alexandra Z. Canales.
Pace Yourself. It’s natural to want to spend every moment in the hospital with your loved one, but that’s a hard, perhaps impossible and unrealistic, pace to sustain. One of Rev. Canales’s chief jobs is helping the loved ones of patients realize when it’s time to take a break. Sometimes that can be a tough sell. “I want to logically convince people that they should go home, but their heart says, ‘I want to be here,’ and when they go home, their heart is still here in the hospital,” says Rev. Canales. “But because people want to come every hour, they never really get any rest.”
And rest, she says, is essential. “You want to last two weeks (or however long), and not just overnight, right? We spend a lot of time exploring that. It’s a lot of dealing with guilt,” says Rev. Canales. “One of my primary roles as a chaplain is to advocate for self-care. What I’ve seen is, people wear themselves out, particularly in settings where it’s already a roller coaster. You can’t sustain being here 24 hours a day. For the patient’s sake, too—you need to take care of yourself. One of the best things to do is take a break and go home.”
Stop and Feel Your Breath. “There is a difference between doing the planning that needs to be done, which is helpful, and worrying over and over about anything or everything,” says Romano. “To endlessly obsess, which comes naturally to all of us to do when there are many things that need to happen, makes things even harder than they need to be.”
Stop and spend half a minute focusing on the physical sensation of your breath. No need to breathe deeply, simply notice how your in-breath and out-breath feel. And take advantage of that moment of peace to notice your thoughts. “Usually when our minds are racing at 100 miles per hour, we don’t even realize that’s what’s happening” says Romano, “but if we stop long enough to notice it, then we can make a choice to stop the racing. Or if we’re obsessing about one aspect of planning without really getting anywhere other than tensing our bodies, maybe we can make a choice to say, I can shift my thoughts to something else right now.”
Accept Help. A good deal of the time, people who care about you offer to help, but many of us want to go it alone. Under normal circumstances, there’s plenty that other people can do to help alleviate regular everyday household burdens—even if it’s only cooking a meal—but during the holidays, especially if there are kids in the picture, there’s even more to do. Rev Canales suggests we learn to say one word: Yes. Let those who offer help decorate the tree, take the kids to parties or send out the holiday cards.
Don’t Think You Need to Do It All. Do you really need to send out holiday cards, or would people understand that you have bigger concerns? Do you have to do your holiday shopping at the mall? Do you need to observe absolutely every holiday custom? The answer to that question, says Rev. Canales, is often no—or yes with modifications. For example, do your shopping, but do as much as possible online.
Don’t Be Afraid to Accept a Little Sadness. Rev. Canales sees it all the time—illness or injury can change people’s lives in big ways quickly and unexpectedly. Life can become difficult almost before you’ve had a chance to register what’s happened. It’s not normal—it’s a new normal, for as long as it lasts.
Rev Canales’s advice: Build on your strengths, the ways in which you are resilient, everything from how flexible you are to your sense of humor.
But in the end, what’s happened can still be sad and/or scary not only for the loved one in the hospital, but for you, too. Romano’s advice: Let those feelings in.
“Instinctively we want to run from sadness or fear,” she says. “Yet research shows that when we turn toward it instead of away from it, that’s actually what brings a sense of relief. In the immediate moment, it might bring crying. But after the crying, there’s usually some relief. We don’t realize how much energy we’ve been using to keep those tears from happening.”
Adds Rev Canales: “I could argue that there is no such thing as a negative feeling. You feel what you feel. There’s nothing wrong with it.”