Most years, when the holidays arrive, I am struck by how fortunate my family is. Perhaps this is because we are bolstered by a rich supply of traditions and rituals, many of which we collected during our four-year stint in Germany, where we developed a taste for gingerbread, mulled wine, and the jolly spirit of Bavaria. 

Whatever your traditions may be, many parents feel fullness and gratitude this time of year. Sometimes, these feelings lead us to entertain wispy thoughts of teaching our children – right here and now – how to give back to those in need. 

 I should really find a way to do that, we think. 

How, exactly, would I do that? we wonder. 

That sounds like yet another thing on my list this week, we conclude.

Then, we may let those charitable thoughts go all together, allowing the busy holiday season to slide into one more batch of cookies or yet another lazy, popcorn-fueled screening of the Grinch.

I know, because that’s how it often goes in my house.

But this time, for my family, the holidays arrived at the end of a catawampus year. My husband and I separated in May, and our dog died in early October. Two weeks after that, our eight-year-old son was hit by a car and walked away, miraculously, with little more than a concussion. 

Minus the dog, we are all safe and sound. But last month, when I began to feel that familiar sense of holiday gratitude, something had changed. My acknowledgements were raw and insulated. I found it difficult to see outside my own circumstance. If that’s how it was for me, then my children were probably spinning around in a similar, navel-gazing space.

My family needed something to propel us out and beyond this tragic moon phase, and quickly. 

In the past, we have always helped our schools collect items for holiday food baskets and donations to local children in need. These are important community efforts, yet many of them require only a simple, passive purchase. What we needed this year was an active kind of giving. 

While scrolling around on Facebook, I found a site dedicated to helping families do charitable deeds together: doinggoodtogether.org. I clicked on the “Pick-A-Project” tab and scrolled down. One idea jumped out at me, like a corner piece of English toffee from my mom’s dessert plate that I had to have.

This year, we would host a holiday card-making party for hospitalized kids.

After my son’s accident, when he regained consciousness, we sat in the road together, waiting for the ambulance. He begged me to just let him go home and get in bed. If only I could have. If only I could have pressed some kind of reset button, gone home to bed, pretend he hadn’t just been struck and thrown 20 feet through the blackish night. 

At the hospital, we entered a pediatric trauma room, where my son’s bed was topped with a tie-dye fleece blanket – a gift, perhaps made by someone else’s mom or a volunteer. Later, my son would take it home and drag it around the house like Linus from “Charlie Brown”. The blanket had provided him comfort and much-needed relief from the stark glare of the emergency room.

After that, my family understood what it meant to be in a hospital, uncertain and terrified, and to receive such kindness and care. The holiday card-making idea gave us a tangible, meaningful goal, connecting all of us to something we had been through ourselves. What’s more, it gave us an avenue to engage with our community.

We invited dozens of friends to our house after school one day and asked them to bring extra supplies to share. It became an arts and crafts love fest, complete with glitter glue and endearing misspellings of holiday greetings.

We made nearly 150 cards and packed them in a box sealed with gummy-bear-print duct tape. Then we mailed the cards to an organization that distributes them to children who are hospitalized during the holidays: cardsforhospitalizedkids.com.

Some years are admittedly too busy and stressful to find a way to do something charitable outside of your own family. Still, children can learn, naturally, to look beyond whatever is happening in their own lives, positive or otherwise. After our year of grief and loss, finding a way to focus on others helped with our healing process. 

I look at our Christmas ornaments, and I see how brightly they tell the story of our family, year after year, like the rings of an old tree. Now, that story has banked left into an unknown crop of hemlocks, and we wait for the ending to unfold.

It’s easy to get stuck on how messy life feels for us right now, so the simple act of helping others comes as a joyful distraction. If we pick up our heads and look around – like some kind of periscope of compassion – we’ll always find that the rest of the world is still out there, waiting for us to do our thing.