Coping with the holidays at the most difficult time

Winter is here, and the holiday season is fast approaching. For most people, it’s a time of year that we look forward to, that brings us warmth and joy at the thought of its arrival. But when a loved one is facing the end of their life the holidays can be especially hard, not only for the one dying, but for all of their friends and family.

It can be incredibly difficult to balance the sadness one feels at the impending loss of loved ones while the world around you is celebrating.

But there’s also something truly beautiful that happens around Christmas, that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness on many occasions. The holidays, more often than not, bring together friends and family members from all over, some of whom might have been apart for years—it’s the most common time of year for reunions. And so Christmas, in fact, can provide someone who is dying with an opportunity they might never have otherwise.

Yes, it can be difficult coming to terms with the fact that this might be someone’s last Christmas, but it’s also such an important time to celebrate the memories that have been created in all those holidays past.

Remember too, that staff at hospices and palliative care centers are always available to help. Never hesitate to reach out to them; they are no strangers to the pressures associated with this time of year. Take the time to read this piece written by the Edmonton Zone Palliative Care Program, and as it says, “be good to yourself.”

Beating the palliative burn-out

One of the most frequent questions I get as a palliative doctor is, “How do you do it—day in and day out?” While burn-out certainly isn’t something that’s isolated to my field of practice, I will say that the toll this line of work can take on you both emotionally and physically is extremely high. Anyone who goes into this speciality and thinks they’re going to be immune to burning out probably doesn’t have a realistic understanding of what this line of work entails.

In fact, seeing families going through difficult times does, in many ways, give me an additional insight into what the effect is of this work on my own well-being. People don’t realize that emotions like grief take an incredible toll on your body. And one of the most important things I tell the families and friends of patients is that it’s incredibly important that you take care of yourself. We’re so focused on taking care of our loved one, that we forget that if we neglect ourselves we won’t be any good to anyone.

Obviously the best tact is to choose something that works for your personality and interests. The most important thing is that you aware that burn-out happens to everyone, and that you need to take steps to avoid it.

Coping mechanisms can include a huge wide variety of things: hobbies or crafts, reading, counselling, or just talking about your emotions, sports, movies, writing, cooking, listening to music.

It’s obviously a very individual thing, but the bottom line is that you make the effort to recognize that exhaustion and burn-out are normal, and that you should never ignore it. But you can do a great deal to help prevent it.

So what do I do? I’ve found that the most important things for me to do are to make sure that I eat well and get a full 8 hours of rest every day (this doesn’t necessarily mean sleep). It’s important that you have decompression time where you can not only unwind, but process everything that’s gone on during the day in a positive way. Then I make sure to get some physical activity during the day. For me, the best way to do this is to take my dog Chase out for walks. Not only do I get the exercise and fresh air that helps physically, but I also get the emotional benefit of a little ‘pet therapy’ from Chase (it’s no myth that people with tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol!).

And remember, never be afraid to ask for help. Palliative practioners and caregivers take a lot on their shoulders each day, it’s important to take some of that weight off whenever you can.