by Alexandra Boutté

Ah, the messy holiday story. We’ve all seen the movies about it. It makes for good comedy, but the truth is that the Season to Be Jolly can feel like an emotional and physical obstacle course for more than just the Griswolds. Thank god for eggnog and tree-shaped brownies. And thank god for the lessons of limb loss.

To get me through the roughest parts of The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, I fall back on the perspective I gained after cancer and amputation. When the power goes out after your aunt overloads the circuits by plugging one too many light strips into the outlet, you, too, might find that some of the darkest struggles from your past can help you shine a light.

Here’s some of what I mean. Are you traveling this year and unsure how you’ll handle sleeping on an air mattress? How will you bathe when there’s no shower chair in sight, let alone hot water because there are approximately 18 people staying at your grandparents’ house? Accessibility issues aside, are you looking forward to your least-favorite cousin’s incessantly focusing the dinner conversation on how it feels to be missing a limb?

No wonder you’re stressed. It’s entirely normal. Your able-bodied friends are feeling harried in December, too, and they don’t have a hundred pairs of eyes staring at them every time they walk past the line of kids waiting to talk to shopping-mall Santa.

You know it’s coming, so get out ahead of it. Make a travel checklist before you pack so you don’t find yourself without any of your essentials when you arrive at Grandma’s. Get creative when it comes to sleeping and bathing accommodations: Place a footstool in the tub to sit on while you shower, and bring your favorite pillow or blanket for more restful sleep. Above all, remember this: It’s not about everything going perfectly smoothly. It’s about remembering the blessings you have and the good people in your life. It’s about renewing your hope in what the next year has in store. If you’re really lucky, it’s about good food (pie, especially) and somebody else doing the dishes.

But don’t be surprised if the holiday lights bring on some bouts of loneliness along with (or instead of) joy. Grief is like a fog. It creeps up and clouds your vision, keeping you from seeing all the magic happening around you. Last December I lost my father. He had been my protector when I was little and my cheerleader when cancer threatened to take my sparkle. I had never spent a Christmas without at least hearing his voice through the phone. His familiar face, which very much resembled mine, was all I could picture when I woke up Christmas morning last year. It was incredibly hard.

Maybe this is your first holiday season without a loved one, too. Maybe you’re grieving a limb you have lost. Perhaps you’re not able to put gifts under the tree for your children or grandkids. If you aren’t quite feeling ready to celebrate the way you once did, please know that you aren’t alone in your grief. So many of us are dealing with heartbreak and challenges. The best gift you can give everyone—the one they’ll remember long after the pine needles are swept up and the wrapping paper is hauled out to the recycling—is your kindness, patience, and understanding. That perspective you gained from surviving limb loss? The light in the darkness? Shine it around freely. You can bet some of your friends and family members need it as much as you do. And it costs you nothing.

Finally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending New Year’s Eve alone on your couch in your sweat pants while you eat a whole charcuterie board by yourself and watch the ball drop on TV. It sure beats the crowds, and it might even help you remember you can spark happiness on your own.

The moment you stop expecting the holidays to look like a picture-perfect postcard is when you will finally get in the spirit of it all. Fight over the TV remote with your siblings. Eat too many leftovers. Embrace the mess. It’s part of the magic. May you make your own version of merry and bright this holiday season.

Alexandra Boutté writes every week at her blog, Limbitless Sunshine. She’s also a regular member of Amplitude‘s writing team and contributes to our newsletter once every six weeks. Follow her on Instagram @limbitlesssunshine.

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