I’ve always loved the holiday season. The decorations, baked goods, gift-giving, and snuggling under a cozy blanket by the fire. What’s not to love? I didn’t understand how people could be grumpy during such a joyful time of year. When December rolled around, I assumed that the angry drivers and cranky department store shoppers must just be Scroogy McScroogerPants. I wrote them off as mean people to stay away from. If there was no room for Christmas cheer in their hearts, they didn’t deserve any of my sugar cookies, peppermint-scented candles, or even a friendly smile. They could just keep to themselves and carry on their way.

After all, what was there to be unhappy about during the holidays?

When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I started to see the world differently. What once was a shining, beautiful place began to feel dark and lonely. The days that were once filled with laughter and friendship became clouded with tears and heartache. I continued to seek goodness, but there was also sorrow. We held on to hope and love, but there was also pain and sickness.

Then the holidays came around again, and I didn’t feel like putting up the Christmas tree. Neighbors started giving out goodies, but I was too tired to make and deliver our legendary homemade salsa. When a cheerful Christmas carol came on the radio, I turned it off and sat in silence.

With much internal reflection, I could still see goodness in the world. Slivers of light shone through the darkness. Fragments of beauty appeared through the brokenness. When I concentrated on the true meaning of Christmas, I could sometimes find reason to smile.

But it wasn’t easy.

Sometimes I was the grump on the road or the Scrooge in the mall. Sometimes I opted out of hot cocoa and gingerbread houses, feeling bitter about the prevalent cheer. I rolled my eyes at the “Happy Holidays” sign in the hospital, because our situation felt so far from happy. Some days I hid under my covers and just waited for the day to pass.

Some stages of life are just plain hard, and the holidays can make them even harder.

Eventually the difficulties subsided. The whole family was sick through Christmas and New Year’s, but by March our health returned. I recovered from bronchitis, our son got over the stomach flu, and most importantly, my husband finished his cancer treatments.

This year, our family has many reasons to celebrate. Life is improving substantially, and our family remains intact. We will joyfully decorate our tree, build a snowman, and finally get that salsa delivered to our neighbors.

But we also view the holidays with new understanding. We recognize that life challenges don’t stop as Christmas approaches. All the mistletoe, stockings, and snowflakes in the world can’t erase the grief, suffering, and heartache.

So this year, I am looking for the ones who are hurting. The grumps and the cranks are likely the heartbroken and the sorrowful. The ones who avoid Christmas carols and reject my hot cocoa probably need a hug and a listening ear. I’ll be on the lookout for those who need compassion and understanding more than sleigh rides and forced merriment. I hope you will look for them, too.

Because you never know who is facing challenges this holiday season. Your coworker may grieve the death of a relative or your neighbor may struggle to put food on the table. That driver may be going through divorce or that shopper may have chronic health problems. Your close friend or family member may feel lost and alone, just waiting for someone to notice.

So when you are out spreading Christmas cheer or passing around the cookies at the holiday party, look for those who are hurting. Be a friend, be kind, and love them unconditionally.

Julieann Selden

Julieann Selden is a chemistry graduate student and non-profit volunteer. Her husband, Ken, is recently in remission from sarcoma cancer. On her blog, contemplatingcancer.com, she examines the thoughts and emotions of life through the lens of an aggressive cancer diagnosis.