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Q. My father has advanced cancer and this may be his last Christmas with us. How does our family make this holiday not put too much pressure on his mental state and make the focus on just trying to enjoy the time we have left with each other?


Thank you for the thoughtful question. As I am answering after Christmas, I hope it will be this will be of use—perhaps at New Year’s or a birthday, but I think the same principles hold true.

The answer depends on how what your father wants—or possibly, how much you are able to figure out what he wants. If your father is aware that this may be his last Christmas (or birthday, etc.) and you feel he is able to talk with you about this, simply ask him what he wants and would make him most comfortable or happy. Would he like to have just a few people around him and a quiet dinner? Would he like to watch you and other relatives have the same Christmas routine as always? Or does he have something else in mind entirely?

Too many options can overwhelm anyone, so you may want to present only two or three choices. For instance: “Dad, what would make you feel best? Just immediate family at home? Family and close friends?” And so forth. If he can’t or won’t choose, go ahead and choose yourself. You love him. So your decision won’t be “wrong.” The most important thing is to let him know how happy you are to share this holiday with him. Tell him what you love about him. What you appreciate. Encourage other people to do so to.

If your father is unable to understand, or not willing to accept that he is near the end of his life, you will need to rely on your judgment and draw on your experiences with him. Has he ever given you his opinion about another person in a similar situation to his, or spoken about the final days of his own father? This may give you insight into what he would like now. Think back: historically, what has a holiday meant to him? Has the focus been on a family dinner, or seeing relatives from out of town or gift giving or an activity? Keeping things simple often helps. You may want to choose just one easy thing.

It sounds as if you have had many joyful holidays together, and while there is comfort in the repetition of activities from year to year, remember that not every year is the same, and that your father may not have a lot of time, but he has your love and devotion and that is the biggest, most lasting and important gift of all.

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