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The holidays are approaching — the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

For many of us, the excitement, family gatherings, reflecting on the birth of Christ are a “mixed bag of emotions” ranging from grief and sadness, to anxiousness and stress or even depression. I’ve learned there is often a special “unwrapped gift” that we can choose to embrace amidst the pain and difficulties. However, we may just have to look a little bit harder to find it.

Eight years ago I lost my mom to lung cancer. I was unprepared for how difficult the first Christmas would be. My mom celebrated Christmas to the extreme — baking dozens of gourmet cookies; decorating the house to the nth degree; selecting the most perfect and thoughtful gifts for everyone (she even bought my husband better gifts than I did!); and her passion for celebrating the real reason for the season. It was just her “time of the year.”

My mom passed away in April that year, and a few months later I went home to help my dad clean out some of her personal belongings. In the corner of the guest bedroom I opened an unmarked box, and as I pulled the lid off, my heart sank — I knew immediately what was inside. “Of course — everyone starts buying Christmas gifts in February!” One by one, I took each precious unwrapped item out of the box and knew immediately who each gift was for. Amazingly, my mom had left our family with gifts for the first Christmas we would celebrate without her physically with us. The unwrapped, pre-bought gift meant the world to each of us.

Although I still miss her terribly, I’ve been able to find the many gifts she left beyond that first Christmas. As I’ve moved through my grief, I’ve chosen to embrace the gifts my mom left me for the years beyond — the memories, traditions and her passion and love for the holiday season.

So, what’s your “mixed bag”?

We all have areas in our lives that hurt. I’m not encouraging you not to feel or to “bypass” the difficult emotions. What I’m encouraging you to do is what my mom taught me — be willing to open up the “unexpected gift.” Look for them this holiday season and you will find them.