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Give the Gift of Healing This Holiday Season

No one should go through a difficult health journey alone. If you have chances to giveor receivethe gift of healing this holiday season, take every single one of them. 

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Whether the holiday song in your head is the Andy Williams classic, the version by Garth Brooks or even what plays in a loop as you wait to talk to a real person on the phone, we are, indeed, approaching “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” And while my window on the world could easily be closedor even boarded upto “the hap-happiest season of all,” the opposite is true.

As founder of CaringBridge, the first and most widely used global nonprofit social network for health journeys, my exposure to the struggles of patients, family caregivers and loved ones seems reason enough to just skip the holidays entirely. But instead, I feel inspired. Across nearly 900,000 CaringBridge websites that have received 2.5 billion visits over nearly 25 years, I am awed by the tremendous power of hope and compassion that shine through a health crisis. In moments of celebrationa clean MRI!and in the terrible times when there is no cure or life ends, I have come to believe in the gift of healing.

Of course, healing is a less dazzling gift than festively wrapped Christmas presents, Hanukkah gelt and Kwanzaa zawadi. But who wouldn’t prefer health over sickness? Home over hospital? Cookies over chemo? One CaringBridge site authored by a young woman whose husband had a brain tumor recurrence just six months after their wedding wrote that they “just wanted to be people. Not people with cancer.” Or stroke, heart disease, infection, traumatic injury, premature birth, surgical complications, organ failure…

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But for those jolted from “normal life” into roles as patients and family caregivers, sharing their storiesthe highs and lows, the hopes and fearsoften creates a healing effect. And while it’s not clearly defined how receiving sympathy and encouragement might affect outcomes, the love, hope and compassion that friends and family want to give certainly becomes an empowering force. A business executive who launched a site after his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis as a “form of self-defense,” merely to organize the chaos of sharing news, said he was amazed by the healing their social network provided. A 34-year-old widow, who had desperately hoped her husband would live to see the new year, said messages of love posted on his website helped her broken heart survive Christmas. Simply put: People are stronger together.

I can’t pretend to explain the gift of healing, but I experienced it when I created the first CaringBridge site in 1997. My dear friends, JoAnn and Darrin, had endured a life-threatening pregnancy and the devastating loss of their newborn daughter, Brighid. I never imagined that Darrin’s overwhelmed and exhausted request for me to “just let everyone know what’s going on” would take on a life of its own. I also never imagined the sea of caring people at baby Brighid’s memorial service, whose waves of love and support had surged through the internet to comfort her parents. On that day, I first saw what healing looks like.

As a software engineer by trade, I have always sought data and logic to show what healing looks like. And there is some research: 

  • Eighty-eight percent of patients and their family caregivers who responded to a Forrester Research study sponsored by CaringBridge said that connecting with family and friends had a positive impact on their healing process. 
  • Social support was identified as the strongest of four factors identified as contributing to positive health and treatment outcomes by a Robert Wood Johnson and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute study (social support: 40 percent; health behaviors: 30 percent; clinical care: 20 percent; physical environment: 10 percent).
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While exciting opportunities for data-gathering continue to emerge, I long ago gave my left-brain self over to not being able to measure magic. A CaringBridge author fighting deadly mantle cell lymphoma described being surrounded by his loved ones with healing strength as “emotional sustenance.” Is there any better gift?

As founder of a digital nonprofit that will mark its 25th year in 2022, I have been humbled to observe how the healing aspects of CaringBridge have evolved as a lifelineand a lifesaver. But as a mom, grandma, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin and friend, I am adamant that no one should go through a health journey alone. This requires “leaning in,” an overused, but nonetheless perfect term, to describe wrapping your arms around something you’d rather run from. For givers, this can take the form of hotdish-delivery, snow-shoveling or making pillows or quilts from a loved one’s T-shirts. It also means saying somethinganythingeven when there are no words. 

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If you have chances to giveor receivethe gift of healing this holiday season, take every single one of them! The gifts come as much from taking a minute to express encouragement as they do from pausing to take in encouragement. We’re taught that it is better to give than receive, but in the case of healing, the two are on equal footing. My hope is that for a brief minute, within a time warp of physical and emotional exhaustion, you, too, can experience the essence of the “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Sona Mehring is founder of the global nonprofit organization CaringBridge.org, based in Eagan, Minn. Learn more about the CaringBridge How We Heal project at caringbridge.org/healing.

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