This morning as I drank my coffee, I started thinking about all the gifts I got for the holidays last year. And I realized that I have only a hazy recollection of one or two things. I thought about our gifts to our kids, now 10 and 9, and realized that I could only remember a few I had given to them. And what I do remember has little to do with the actual gift itself – it has to do with how they reacted to these gifts and how much joy we shared in the days and weeks after the holidays using these gifts together.

When I think about it, I realize that the one thing I can remember year after year are the stories of the season. Sure, first are the classic stories of the holidays that we read, watched and told together, from The Night Before Christmas to The Grinch to stories of tradition.  Even more so, I remember the stories we retell all year about the time we share together as a family.

By telling these stories, we fix these events and feelings in our memory. I remember the stories of the turkey catching on fire in our brand-new home and the time our two-year-old daughter “skied” on her new plastic step-in skis across snowy pedestrian streets in a charming mountain village in France. But the sum of these stories is a better understanding of who we are as individuals, families, and as the many cultures that make up our holidays.

But in many families, their holiday stories also include illness. Our instinct may be to repress these stories – who wants to hear about cancer treatment or the challenge of caregiving for a child’s chronic condition during the holidays? But consider this: Maybe instead of determined positivity, the holidays are better understood as a time for embracing emotions of all sorts? It’s a time when perhaps who we are in the inside can break through the surface of who we may pretend to be for most of the year.

Knowing you is what your family and friends will remember – not the internet-assisted electric car set or the new set of golf clubs, but the emotion of the stories you tell about the events that have shaped you as a person.

For me, part of my personal story is my cancer journey.  My 30-years of brain cancer survivorship has made me who I am today, as have my experiences in the community of survivors that have shaped my deep desire to give back to those touched by serious and chronic illness. Without understanding where I came from and what I’ve been through, it may be hard for people in my life to understand who I am now. That’s why, in addition to gifts that I know are destined to be forgotten, I will continue to give the gift of my personal stories, which I imagine will last much longer.

What stories will you tell this holiday season? How will these stories help your loved ones understand you and, by extension, understand themselves? This understanding of who you are – for better and for worse, in all its misshapen beauty – is the greatest gift you can give this holiday season.

Sheri Brisson
Sheri Sobrato Brisson is a brain tumor survivor who discovered the importance of self-reflection during her recovery. From her personal illness experience and a dozen years supporting families and children with serious illness, her life’s philanthropic mission is to empower families and children facing serious illness. She has started and facilitated support groups for children with illness and their families for over twenty years with organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Brain Tumor Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Packard Children’s Hospital. She has served as Board Member for many children’s health nonprofit organizations including American Cancer Society San Jose, UCSF/Mt. Zion Auxiliary, Creighton Health Institute, and Okizu Foundation. Brisson received her master’s degree in counseling from Santa Clara University and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University.
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