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Finding Joy in a Holiday Open to Grief

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

The Other Ultimate Sacrifice

I used to think no one else could possibly know what it was like to live with my husband. And I was right, but there were many others who also experienced the ambiguous grief I felt when my husband, Joe, came back from the Gulf War.

He left something back there—some of his personality and the reasons I had fallen in love with him.

The US military lost Joe in the cracks and didn’t tell us anything until 2014 about why he was so sick, and civilian doctors couldn’t make heads or tails of Joe’s paranoia, physical pain, lung problems, eczema, and chronic GI bleeding.

Eggshells and Holidays

As my husband developed schizophrenia, I felt less fearful that he might die and angrier that he hadn’t. Then I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for me and our kids. I thought Joe had to get better for us to be okay.

We had happy and rough times, but as his caregiver as well as his wife and the mom of his kiddos, I had my own underlying current of secondary PTSD building up as I walked on eggshells. I tried to keep everyone calm while telling myself I was a terrible mom and caregiver for fighting so much with Joe.

I felt like a failure for neglecting our boys while I fielded my husband’s fears and delusions. I worried they didn’t deserve the life they were having.

Holidays were usually painful for Joe, stressful for me, and unremarkable for the boys, except for the typical fighting between their parents. I tried to make New Year’s Eve sort of loud, Valentines pretty loving, Easter low key, Memorial Day just another day—until my little sister Jennifer died.

On Independence Day, Joe required headphones and food to keep him occupied. We camped a week before Labor Day to avoid the crowds; I tried to make Halloween spooky for the kids and NOT for Joe, and Thanksgiving (his favorite) the boys and I ate one dinner with Joe, and another with my extended family without him.

Christmas was Joe’s nemesis. He was grumpy from Halloween to mid-January, and worried about all the kids in the world who were abused and neglected instead of showered with gifts.


I hit rock bottom after counting my blessings one summer Sunday, attempting to drive away my feelings of depression and defeat. Seeing all there was to be grateful for, yet still sad beyond belief, I felt guilty and ashamed that Joe and I fought so much and had to be refereed by our boys. I thought they would all be better off without me.

Our youngest son interfered with my plan to end my life, and I finally got help in the form of a happy pill. It took the edge off my despair, but it didn’t curb the tumultuous atmosphere in our home. I needed something else and had no idea what.

Joe and I tried counseling, and it always helped a little, but Joe wouldn’t continue after a couple of visits with anyone. He worried they thought he was evil or colluding with aliens.

It took time for me to find the right help, which finally came as a life coach. And another coach. These two women and my happy pill made all the difference for me. I see my life as BC and AD - before coaching and after delusions—mine, not Joe’s.

Coaching taught me how putting my needs first helped me be a MUCH better caregiver. Instead of burning out putting Joe first, I learned to set boundaries, take better care of my emotional health (which also curbed my emotional eating) and helped me figure out how to be my own best friend!

It makes me a much better friend to Joe, and not just his caregiver. It’s magic having more fun with than I did before.

I went from anticipating the day our boys grew up so I could divorce him, to enjoying being with him again, and not just benevolently, but truly wanting to hang out with him, delusions and all.

Christmas Joy

Although my precious husband still isn’t healed, we’ve discovered together that this journey hasn’t been a disaster. We aren’t broken but becoming. Our marriage looks different than we thought it would, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything because this is the one where we get to love without expectations or manuals for how we’re supposed to be.

Our boys had exactly the life they should because it taught them to have compassion instead of judgment, curiosity without blame, and creativity moving forward through life.

Last Christmas was a miracle. Joe donned a fuzzy Santa Hat, visited with our kids and grandkids, and even made a wooden spice rack for my mom, an airplane key chain for my dad, and a beautiful horse for our granddaughter.

Caregiver Happy Holidays Retreat

My husband struggled with delusions before and after the holidays, but we took it in stride and loved him with reckless abandon no matter what his brain told him. Joe takes comfort in knowing he’s perfect for me, just as he is.

Do you know that this same transformation can happen for you and your loved ones? What about a holiday without loved ones because of loss, separation, death, divorce, or logistical barriers?

You can have exactly the holiday you want without changing your circumstance, having more time or money, having less pain and stress, or any magic wands or fairy dust. I know you can because I’ve seen it happen for many of my patients and clients.

To uncover the secrets of having confidence, hope, peace, and any other outcomes you want this season, for the coming new year and ALWAYS, come join us at a special event to uncover your source of joy.

Register (it’s free) at Caregivers Happy Holidays Retreat. We’ll meet up in a special FB group with your invitation extended to you upon registration. In this group, we’ll all be watching the videos on our own time, then contributing our thoughts and workbook ah-hahs in the comments.

At our live get-togethers, we speak honestly and share what will benefit you most—how to be the best caregiver by loving yourself. Thriving Caregivers Care Better.

You can also submit your brief assignments if you want feedback, and there will be two live events to support you on Tuesday and Friday evening at 8 pm Eastern and 5 pm Pacific. We’d love to see you there!

On Friday, the 19th, a special announcement will be made on the live about a caregiver grant from a sponsor that YOU can apply for.

Another bonus throughout the retreat is the chance to schedule a live, one-to-one conversation with me (Jill) about your greatest challenge, and how I can help you.

Jill Armijo the author of Home of the Unknown Soldier, caregiver to Joe, mom of three amazing young men, and someone who understands what it is to love others unconditionally.


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