The Treasured Gift of Christmas Memories for Families with Cancer

05 December 2023

37 people in Northern Ireland are told they have cancer every day. For those facing a terminal diagnosis, this Christmas will take on special meaning. 

The Treasured Gift of Christmas Memories for Families with Cancer

The Family Support team at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland works with over 350 parents, carers and children every year. Some of these families are currently preparing to spend their last Christmas with a loved one or facing their first Christmas without mum or dad.

 In the run up to Christmas, the Family Support team will be working with parents and their children to put together Memory Books and Memory Boxes, full of photos, pictures, craft projects and messages that can be treasured by the family.

 Cancer Focus Northern Ireland Family Support Worker, Lisa Fee, said,

“It may seem small, but the act of choosing pictures together offers the chance to capture memories, to remember and note down precious moments, and to have important conversations, that they may not otherwise get a chance to have. The power of this for both the individual with cancer, and for their partner and children, can be immeasurable. The idea of being able to leave something behind is an enormous comfort in the worst of times for a parent. For a child, the memory book can become a highly treasured gift for the future.”

The Cancer Focus NI Family Support Service provides emotional and practical support programmes for primary age children, teenagers, and parents. The team’s specialist support workers offer guidance in talking to children and young people about cancer.

As well as supporting with these difficult and emotional conversations, they also offer parents help with practical matters such as planning for the future, discussing their wishes and coping as a parent living with cancer. As highly trained counsellors and psychotherapists, the team provides tailored one-to-one emotional support whenever it is needed. 

Gail Calwell, Family Support Coordinator at Cancer Focus NI, said,

“When an adult in the family is diagnosed with cancer, it affects the whole family. It can be a distressing, isolating and frightening time. Sometimes, it can be hard for a family to openly talk about exactly how it feels to go through cancer. We are here to ensure everybody in the family is looked after.”

As highly trained counsellors and psychotherapists, the team provides tailored one-to-one emotional support whenever it is needed.

Lisa Fee continued,

Sometimes we get to know a family over a period of weeks or months, and other times, we can get a call at any time of the day or night, rushing to be with a family when, sadly, a parent is nearing the end of their life.

“Quite often, we are introduced to a family when they’re given the diagnosis, and they will just get on with things by themselves: they’re in the eye of the storm. One of the most important things is for them to know that they’re not alone - they just need to lift the phone and we’ll be there. We will then pick up with them and meet them where they are at. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and everyone’s experience and needs are different.

“Right now, our team is working with quite a few families who have lost a mum in the last year and we’re supporting the dads and the children, as they prepare for their first Christmas, planning gifts and Christmas dinner in a new way. We advise all families that there is no right or wrong way to do this, that it’s okay to set new traditions, or to try to maintain previous ways. It is important that they trust their instincts and do what feels right for them. It’s a time to be kind to yourself and those closest to you and that’s the only goal.”

This year’s Christmas fundraising campaign by Cancer Focus NI aims to raise £20,000 to allow the charity to continue delivering the Family Support Service to hundreds of mums, dads, carers, young people, and children who rely on them.  A donation of £50 could pay for a treasured memory book that a parent can leave behind for their children.

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