How to Give When It Hurts

December 17, 2011

The best and worst Christmas I ever had was the year after my brother died. I was 17. The grief was palpable. My family couldn’t speak to each other. It’s possible it was just me who couldn’t speak. However it happened, I remember the silence.

My step-mom was the hub of a PTA program that provided clothes and shoes to kids who came to school in need, so she was well connected to both families in need, and streams of donations. This Christmas Eve, my house was busy and quiet. My mom had found three families who would not have Christmas that year because they were broke. No dinner, no gifts.

Humble Gratitude

So, two of my high school friends came over and helped me gift-wrap toys and clothes in my room, while my mom and dad and little brother sorted food cans and turkeys and household goods in the kitchen and living room. We had these big long boxes that came with the food we ourselves received on some kind of assistance every month. That night we filled those boxes with presents and food for people we had never seen, three families we imagined in our heads as we prepared for them a Christmas they would not have had otherwise.

Being 17, I was embarrassed, a teenager after all. Would we be robbing these people of their dignity to show up on their doorstep and give them boxes of food and gifts the night before Christmas? Would they hate us because we saw their vulnerability and sadness, and even shame at not being able to provide for themselves?

But we packed into the station wagon with the boxes, and drove to one house, then the next. Three houses, my mom knocked on the door, light poured onto the porch, my dad shook the other dad’s hand. The big awkward boxes went from our hands to theirs. I glimpsed the kids in their living rooms looking out the door at strangers. The moment was short. The mom would hug my mom, all would nod and then we ducked out. No ceremony, just humble gratitude. Deep thanks. And a feeling of riches none of us would have dreamed on the night before Christmas in a poor part of town like ours.

Big as a broken heart

It was over. We drove home. Went to bed. Woke up to Christmas in our house. But our celebrating had already been done. Quietly, diligently, the night before. We were satisfied and filled as full as our broken hearts were going to fill that year. There was something bigger than us, almost as big as the loss of my brother. Receiving through giving. Surviving loss by giving. Giving when we knew there was nothing we could give but a hand to a few families we had never met, but who had fallen on hard times. We had been getting to know about hard times.

I’m here to tell you that even when you think you have nothing, you have something to give. Right now, when the world is gasping in fear at financial doom, right now is the time to give. So, take a breath. Open up. And give. Expand. Radiate.

What will you give?

(Thanks, Mom and Dad for the gift of that experience. It continues to give to this day. Love you.)

A longer version of this post was first published on in 2008. But I love it so much that it might not be the first time I bring it back. :)


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dianne Juhl December 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Pema, this piece “How to Give When It Hurts” personally touches me deeply on so many levels. I will be sharing this with The Feminine Face of Money community as it embodies all FFOM holds dear and celebrates. I will carry with me the poignancy of this into the coming days & weeks: “No ceremony, just humble gratitude. Deep thanks. And a feeling of riches that none of us would have dreamed on the night before…”


Pema Teeter December 19, 2011 at 11:38 am

Thanks, Dianne. Here’s to the Feminine Face of Money and a holiday season of riches. xo


Bob Beverley December 19, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Hi Pema,

A sweet, sad, deep bit of writing. Thanks. You are so right: “There was something bigger than us, almost as big as the loss of my brother. Receiving through giving. Surviving loss by giving.” Sublime and yet painful truth.

Merry Christmas,



Marianne December 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Beautiful and wise and healing.


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