Caring Currents

Thanksgiving Dilemma: When Illness Intrudes on the Holidays

Last updated: Nov 25, 2009

Turkey Day

Last night my friend Alice called to ask my advice about a hard holiday situation. Her sister Jeannie is planning to host the family's Thanksgiving dinner, which in their case means seating 20. But her sister's husband, my friend's brother-in-law, was just diagnosed with stage II esophageal cancer. Thankfully, the tumor was discovered early enough to be operable, and he's having surgery this week. He may even be released on Thanksgiving Day itself.

Meanwhile, Jeannie is insisting she doesn't want to change the plan to have Thanksgiving at her house.

"We all know this is crazy and she shouldn't be hosting, but she won't hear of changing the plans," Alice says. "She just keeps saying Ted will be fine -- I think she's in denial about what it's going to mean when he comes home, and how much care he's going to need." Alice's thought was to stage a gentle revolt, and quietly plan to host Thanksgiving herself, then inform her sister that the family had made a collective decision that it was for the best. That can work, I told her, but the result might be that you end up sitting down to dinner without Jeannie and Ted if they felt unable to make the 40-minute trip. And sitting down to eat without beloved family members kept home by illness can feel very sad.

The story brought back so many difficult memories for me; my father too had esophageal cancer, and was given a stage IV terminal diagnosis in September, so the holidays were bittersweet for my family that year. And while my dad, sadly, wasn't a candidate for surgery, he couldn't travel far and needed to rest a lot, so we needed to plan Thanksgiving around what he could manage.

What I suggested to Alice is something I've seen many families dealing with cancer and other illnesses do, which is to turn Thanksgiving into a "moveable feast."

By bringing Thanksgiving or other holiday meals into the home of the family member who's sick (as long as no one's contagious) allows everyone to be together, and takes the pressure off sick family members to travel. But that doesn't mean the caregiver hosts -- just the opposite. As we all know, when you're caring for someone with cancer or another serious illness, you have enough on your plate without worrying about whether there are enough matching wine glasses.

So here's what you do: The rest of the family brings Thanksgiving to the caregiver. And does all the cleaning, preparation, and set-up. (And all the washing up, too.)

It's true there will be coordination challenges, and some issues will arise: You may end up with a slightly less formal meal, and the timing may not be perfect. (And some cooks struggle with letting others take over their kitchens.)

Depending on distances between family members' homes, the turkey may not be hot out of the oven -- you may not even be able to carve it at the table.

But the result can be one of the most meaningful meals your family will ever experience.

After all, what better way to give thanks for the love and support of family -- and for the blessing of all being together -- than by bringing Thanksgiving into the home of the family members most in need?

If you have a story about how your family is celebrating together this holiday season despite obstacles like serious illness, we'd love to hear it.