It’s the time of year when families come together to enjoy each other’s company, tell stories, reminisce about the past year and celebrate the hope of the next year. In the popular narrative, laughter and merriment abound.

For families of someone with a serious mental illness, the picture doesn’t quite match the idyllic scenes on greeting cards or TV holiday specials. In many cases, the ill loved one may not be with their family. The fortunate ones are safe in hospital or choosing their own isolated space. The less fortunate are homeless or wandering somewhere far from home. And for families whose loved one has succumbed to the despair of this illness, this is a bittersweet time at best.

If our ill family members are present with us, they’re present in bodies only – their minds in their own world. We try to include them, to find a gift they will truly appreciate; not just something to meet one of their many needs. If they are able, they may offer a small gift to the family out of their social allowance.

But, whether they – or we – know it, they’ve already given us an incredible gift, something we never knew we needed or were capable of receiving: the gift of unbounded compassion.

With this gift we view the world with new eyes. When we hear news of a violent attack and the world instinctively shouts “terrorist,” we instead pause and wonder if the perpetrator isn’t suffering from an untreated mental illness. When we see a homeless man sleeping on the street, we don’t judge him but wonder how he got here and what we can do to help him. And when we hear of the rising death toll from illicit drug use, we don’t assume it only happens to others – we know it could be any of us.

Sure we already had compassion, but it’s now grown beyond what we had ever imagined. This gift enfolds us as we strive to find help for our family member, and join with others who understand our pain. As we grieve the lost potential of someone who was once vibrant, creative and intelligent, it wraps us in the blanket of comfort that comes from helping others.

We didn’t ask for this gift. We’d return it in a heartbeat if we could – the price was too high for the giver. We’d do anything to exchange it for the health of our loved one. But this gift can’t be returned or exchanged. It’s ours now, and forever. It’s what drives us to help other families, because it provides some meaning to an utterly meaningless illness. It drives us to try to correct inadequate and unjust systems that completely fail to help the most vulnerable among us.

In this season of giving, let’s envision ways to pass this gift on to others – especially to those in a position to enact change. Let’s learn to creatively express ourselves so they see the mentally ill not as “others” but as part of the human family. Let’s persuade them that the beggar, the addict, the homeless person is not someone who deserves their fate, but someone who deserves our help. And let’s continue supporting one another to have the strength to endure not just the effects of mental illness, but society’s inadequate response to it.

After all, isn’t that what this season is all about?