In tough times of serious illness: coping with holidays and special days

Holidays and special days (like birthdays or Christmas) can be a difficult time for those who are experiencing serious illness - and for those supporting them.

Others can seem so carefree, and yet your life - or the life of someone you are caring for – can have many serious and daily challenges and difficulties to manage. Many say these are particularly stressful times, with expectations that you may or may not be able to fulfill, however much you wish you could. Some say it can therefore also be an isolating and lonely time.

Illness allows you and your family/whānau to have the right to make personal choices that best suit your needs – so do just that.

Take time to think about some ways to help get through these times as positively as possible.


It’s common to want to avoid thinking about upcoming holidays or special events, but planning ahead can make a positive difference to how things turn out. So don’t just anticipate – plan. This gives you a chance to choose how things will happen, and this can lessen the stress or worry.

  • Find a trusted friend or family member to work through any concerns you have about the upcoming days – talking about it may help. What health concerns need to be considered? What special needs or requests? What’s possible and what’s not? What traditions do you want to keep – or what new ones could you start? Are there any cultural or faith needs?
  • If you are a carer, remember to always ask the person you are caring for, for their input. They may have a whole different idea about what will work best for them, so plan as a team.
  • Before the holiday or event scale back on anything that might increase your stress load. Plan and make time to do some things that you enjoy, or that relax you. The more relaxed people are, the easier it is for everyone usually!
  • Many find that making ambitious plans at holiday time makes everything much harder. Keeping plans simple may help.

“It amazed me that the simplest Christmas we had ever had was the best of all. We had his bed in the living room, next to the tree and table, and we had a gentle and loving day. A few visitors for just a few minutes and goodwill spilled all over us. A slow, meandering day with a few treats and good music and lots of peace.” Annie

  • Some people say that anticipating holidays or special event is far worse than the real thing! In fact most find that the holidays or special days turn out far, far better than they expected they would.

Make your own choices ahead of time

  • Decide ahead of time what you want to be involved in, or what you’d prefer to not be a part of.
  • Decide who you’d like to have with you at events you do choose to be a part of.
  • Choose how much time you want to give to different things.
  • Choose if there may be times you want to be on your own, rather than with others. How could this be done?
  • Consult with your family members about how they think things could be organised. Perhaps speak with your health professionals to see if they can suggest how to smooth your way through those times as much as possible. Often others’ suggestions can be helpful
  • Choose if you want to keep up traditions or perhaps do something completely new and different to celebrate special days. Why not? Often people say this makes for really relaxing and good times, because it’s fresh and different and planned around whatever you really need the most this time.

Keep in touch

When you make choices, it’s important to keep in touch with family or friends who may be affected by your plans. This allows you to be honest about where you’re at and what you need, and about why you have made the choices you have at this time. Staying in touch will help avoid confusion and misunderstandings.


Because everyone is different it’s likely families and friends may have differing views about how things should be done for holidays and special times. Try to respect each other’s needs by agreeing to find ways to compromise. Give and take is important in healthy relationships. However, whoever is unwell needs to be carefully listened to, in case their needs are not met and this causes increased anxiety, unhappiness and tension that could be avoided

Enjoying yourself is okay!!

Some people worry that enjoying the holidays when they, or someone they love, is very ill is somehow disrespectful, or makes them look like they’ve stopped caring about what’s happened. In fact, pushing all joy from your life isn’t a positive step. Taking opportunities to celebrate and enjoy the good things of life is what holidays and special days are for after all.

Remember, the grief that can come when someone is very ill is a mixture of so many different feelings and thoughts and reactions. Feeling good in the middle of it all is as much a part of the experience as anything else.

“We laughed more those holidays than we laughed all year. We planned silly games and told bad jokes. We relaxed together for the first time in forever. It was amazing. Yes, I got incredibly tired and paid for it in the next days, but it was worth it. Oh and we took lots of photos, which I look at most days.” Jake

It's okay to say no

You don’t need to do things that you feel might make you uncomfortable or very stressed just because you think they are expected of you. Give yourself permission to say “No”, or perhaps to leave a room, or to leave early from an event, when you need to. If you are ill, think who you can rely on to help you leave if you need to.

I said I’d try and I did. I sat with them for half an hour but that was all I could handle. But that was okay, because I told them ahead of time that I was likely to need to rest. There were around 25 of them – all ages. That half an hour together was so special and I knew they were glad I was there. Sheila.

If you get social invitations you don’t want to accept, it’s okay to decline. Just thank them for the invitation and say something like “Let’s try to get together at another time.” Most people will understand.

Try not to allow yourself to be isolated from others for a long time. Some have found that if they do, it then becomes more difficult to fit back into the community circles they were part of. Some people say making the effort, even when they dreaded being with others, actually paid off - and they had a better time than they expected to.

Accept and ask for support

Contact others when you feel you need company, distraction or support.

Often those who care about you are grateful to have some way of offering the kind of support you need. They appreciate being asked to help in ways they know you will value e.g. providing transport or company for an event.

If you don’t have friends or family close by, there are many different community agencies committed to supporting people through tough times. Contact them. The front of your phone book or your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau can give you contacts.

Don't hesitate to ask for professional help if you feel overwhelmed or paralysed by your emotions, or if you’re having extreme reactions that are worrying or even frightening you. Contact your GP or practice nurse, a counsellor, your local mental health team, a local family support agency or perhaps a telephone help line, such as Lifeline, Samaritans or Youthline (See the front of your phone book or community directory). You don’t ever have to go through this alone.

Be understanding of others

How people react to tough times is a very individual process. Keeping aware of this might help you better understand others and their reactions, especially when they may be very different from your own.

Many say that even when they’re facing tough times themselves, something very positive happens in them when they actively look outside of themselves and offer others time, help, encouragement, friendship, love and support. Sometimes people are well intentioned but will still say or do dumb things. If you understand this may happen maybe you’ll be better able to deal with it if it does.

Make room for emotion

Give yourself time to express emotions as you need to - bottling them up takes huge energy and may make things worse, especially in the long run.

Find out how you best express your feelings. For example, by writing, by talking with someone, by being active or by getting creative. Everyone has their own style.

Tears are positive. Just let them flow when they need to. Science has proven they’re very effective at making us feel better!

Accept how you feel

It’s normal to have many mixed emotions during special days and holidays. Accept how you feel and expect it to be very changeable. Don't try to live up to others expectations of how you “should” feel. Just be yourself.

Look after yourself well

  • This is a time to make sure you care for yourself - eat sensibly, drink water, get some exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
  • Avoid using alcohol or on prescription drugs, or over eating, over spending, gambling or extreme things to cope with your difficult thoughts and emotions.
    Find some other ways to release feelings. Talking with others can make a helpful difference. Who could you perhaps talk things over with?
  • Consider exploring any faith beliefs or cultural traditions that you may have.

Many say they find these can be reassuring and encouraging.


While specials days and holidays do present unique challenges for those who are very ill, and for those supporting them, taking time to think and plan, and to tune into what the needs are, you will be able to get through them positively.

You may even find many positive and memorable experiences in them for both yourself, and your family/whānau, that you will be so glad to have had.

Go well – step by step.

See or phone 08 299 100 for further support and resources to help you get through tough times Skylight supports adults, teens and children through tough times – whatever their cause.



Thanks to Skylight for allowing the Cancer Society to reproduce their information sheet. The image for this publication is reproduced with permission from Skylight.