Hope for the Holidays

After the death of a loved one, the holiday season can be particularly challenging. It is a time of year when there are many messages and expectations of hope, yet the complexity of grief can accentuate feelings of hopelessness.

Hope Ornament | Hansen-Spear Funeral Home - Quincy, IllinoisFor myself, hope has been a slippery, elusive little word. When I feel hopeful, it flies under my radar, however when I feel hopeless, it pervades everything. When I try to define hope in a concise and coherent way, I can’t find the words to express it.

At the end of October, I attended the Annual Palliative Care Conference in Edmonton. One of the plenary speakers, Cheryl Nekolaichuk, spoke about her research into the meaning of hope. She presented a model of hope that shows it as a multidimensional, dynamic, and uniquely personal experience that blends and integrates many aspects of a person’s life.

Her research suggests that people experience hope in three interconnected realms: First, the realm of personal spirit, which represents a holistic experience of hope and involves one’s perception of meaning; Second, is the situational realm, which is influenced by the delicate balance of predictability and uncertainty in a situation, and one’s tolerance to risk; Third, it includes comfortable, caring and credible relationships with other people as an important part of the hope experience.

Ever since her presentation, I have been thinking and reflecting: How can I broaden my understanding of my inner resources that are foundational to hope?  And, How can I be more intentional about finding glimmers of hope when hope feels sparse?

With that, I have created a list of ideas to address finding/creating/understanding hope during the holiday season:

  • Instead of interpreting hope as stagnant and black or white (i.e. hopeful or hopeless), see it as a personal, dynamic reflection of yourself born from a variety of experiences, all of which are interconnected and malleable. Hope is multidimensional, and rides an extensive spectrum. Ask yourself: Where does your experience of hope fit on the continuum of feeling connected versus isolated? Certain versus uncertain? Meaningful versus meaningless? And holding on versus letting go? Notice the fluidity upon those spectrums, and how your experience of hope may fluctuate based on your place on each continuum. Hope isn’t black and white – there is much more possibility than that.
  • Trust your individuality and uniqueness. Hope is an inner experience, born out of your own personal spirit. No two people will experience hope in the same way, so pay attention to you.
  • Identify threads of meaning in your holiday traditions that were important to you in previous years, and pull them into this year. Be intentional about finding a thread of meaning that fits. For example, if being with family has always been an important part of your tradition, but you don’t have the mental or emotional energy for a huge family gathering, choose to keep it small and intimate. Identify what is personally meaningful about your traditions and adapt it in a way that meets your needs.
  • How much uncertainty and risk are you willing to tolerate this year? Consider how predictable your plans are, and how comfortable you are with this. Think about what you need to feel safe, then set limits and stick to them. For example, accepting an invitation to a function with a set guest list is more predictable that attending a drop-in open house.  Or maybe you decide to only spend 1.5 hours at each social engagement. You have the power to choose how you would feel most comfortable spending your time.
  • If your tolerance for uncertainty and risk is low, make a list of what elements are predictable, and see if you can enhance this. Even if it’s simply a mental recognition that you have some predictable elements that you can focus on – as if it were a lighthouse in the distance of a rough and windy sea.
  • Think about how you have handled challenging times in the past. What have been some “go to” strategies that have worked to bring you comfort and peace? Make a list, and post it somewhere you can see it. If you need a break or some self-care time, look at your list and choose one of your tried and true strategies.
  • Determine what caring and capable people do you have in your life and who you can call on for support. Be intentional about seeking the support of authentically caring people. Maybe make a list, so if the time comes when you need support you don’t have to think about whom to call.
  • Consider making a “hope first aid kit.” In your kit, place lists you have made in some of the strategies listed above, images or words you find hopeful, linking objects that connect you with your loved one, or anything else that speaks to you. Place this kit in an easily accessible spot, and use it when you need it.

“Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.”  – Lin Yutang




  1. Nekolaichuk, C. L., Jevne, R. F., & Maguire, T. O. (1999). Structuring the meaning of hope in health and illness. Social Science & Medicine, 48(5), 591-605.
  2. Nekolaichuk, C. L. (in press). Hope in end-of-life care. In: E. Bruera, I. Higginson, C. Ripamonti, & C. von Gunten. Textbook of palliative medicine. London: Hodder Arnold, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis.


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