Learn to celebrate Christmas: Lessons from hospice patients

For years I’ve been asked the same question: “How can you work in hospice and be around death everyday?” As if death, like this year’s flu, were something we could all just avoid so long as we stay away from it. This question, however, takes on a bit of a different form this time of year as people’s thoughts are centered much more around family. The question becomes more of a presumptive statement, but the questioning is still there. It transforms to something like: “It must really be hard working with patients who may be celebrating their last Christmas.”

It’s true that this holiday season will be the last time many families will have a particular loved one around the Christmas tree or at the dinner table. Countless families will celebrate deep rooted family traditions for the last time with the very one they’ve always looked to as the creator of those traditions. But to assume that these families and their loved ones will have a sad or depressing Christmas is a mistake.

People most often associate the word hospice with death, and for obvious reasons. Hospice care’s sole purpose is of course to care for the dying patient. But what people most often fail to recognize is that hospice is an opportunity, for the very first time for some, to truly live. Opportunity may seem an odd choice of word when staring death in the face, but just because you have life doesn’t mean you’re living. I’ve watched patients and their families live life to the fullest in the span of a few days while I see other people everyday who haven’t lived in years. Things like healing broken relationships and saying things to loved ones you wish you would have said a long time ago, or just more often, begin to rise to the top of the priority list. Children and grandchildren gather around with no regard to time as stories are told. Coffee with old friends takes on a sweetness that’s not confined by a single moment.

The truth is, this time of year for many families with loved ones receiving hospice care is not sad at all. These kinds of moments may seem sad on the surface, but they are filled with more life than most people will experience in 50 holiday seasons. Am I saying you have to wait till your a hospice patient to truly live life? Of course not. If hospice has taught me anything over the years, it’s that life is to be celebrated as often as possible. We spend much of our lives trudging through the same routines blinded to opportunities to celebrate. The holiday season is supposed to shine bright with celebration but is often the worse offender when it comes to routine.

So this Christmas season celebrate Christmas like a hospice patient. Create new family traditions or put a renewed emphasis on the old ones that are so special. Give the routine things less importance than the things that create lasting memories. Most importantly, celebrate the valuable relationships in your life. Say the things you should’ve said already (the good ones of course), even if it’s not comfortable. Then when the holidays are all over, decide to celebrate life all year long. You won’t regret it.

Andy Milligan is President and CEO, Solaris Healthcare.

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