Good Grief: Coping with Loss During the Holidays
It was August 19th, 2017. I was in Ann Arbor with my family on the campus of U of M. My oldest daughter was getting her high school senior photos taken near the law quad. It was the first day in weeks that I hadn’t gone to my parent’s house to check on my dad. It was his thirteenth day in hospice. My dad had been battling small cell lung cancer like a warrior for two years.
My siblings and their families also took the day off and each went out for the day to have a little break. My mom had told all of us it was okay to take a breather for a day. As I watched the photographer snap photo after photo of my daughter, I was smiling reminiscing about her entire school year. I was enjoying the mental break away from the pain of watching my dad suffer. He had the best attitude and never complained but we all knew he was tired. There is nothing worse than not being able to breathe. I looked away from the photoshoot for a moment and reached into my purse to grab something and there it was. My cell phone was illuminated with several missed calls and texts. My heart sunk. Why was my volume down? How did I miss this? I frantically read through the texts from last to first:
“Where are you?”
“Your uncle is doing his best to keep your Dad’s oxygen levels up.”
“You need to get home.”
I felt so sick. I missed all those messages from my mom. All of a sudden, the sound went out of my ears. This giant college campus we’re on suddenly became so small. My world was crashing down. I couldn’t believe the one day we all weren’t there, my dad was going home. I walked over to our photographer and whispered in her ear “We have to go now. My dad is dying but please don’t say anything out loud. I’ll tell my kids in the car.” She said in shock: “oh my gosh, okay.” Her face looked so sad and empathetic. I felt bad for her reaction and could only imagine how much it would hurt to tell my kids and also my husband.
I handed my phone to my husband so he could read the texts as I was yelling to my kids it was time to go. I looked at him and held up my finger to “shhhh” him as he was reading. He knew I was protecting the girls from telling them then and there. He nodded as his eyes welled up handing the phone back. I told the girls we have to hurry up and go quickly. They didn’t understand why we were leaving the photoshoot so fast. I called my mom and told her why I missed her calls and texts and apologized but told her we were hurrying to get there. She told me his oxygen was really low. I asked if he was still alive and she said: “yes, I believe he’s holding on until all of you kids get here.” I realized at that moment that none of us were there. I was frantic telling my husband to speed up and to get to my dad as fast as he could. My daughters ask me if it was Papa as to why we were in a rush. I told them yes, he’s not doing so well. Even at the ages of 13, 15, and 17, they weren’t grasping what was happening. I had to tell them that I was sorry that their Papa was more than likely going to Heaven today. I will never forget the looks on their faces. My heart was hurting. Our 40-minute drive to my parent’s seemed like an eternity. We finally pulled up and I ran across the yard of my parent’s home and into the house as fast as I could. Running down the hallway and into my dad’s room, it was somber. My siblings made it there already. They were standing all around his bed with looks on their faces I will never forget. Their sadness hurt my soul. I would do anything to protect all of them from this pain but I couldn’t. I am a fixer by nature, but I knew I couldn’t fix this.
I couldn’t believe it, it was happening. My Dad, my Daddy, my hero, my protector, my advice giver, my comedian, and my friend, the best Papa ever to my girls, a second father to my husband, was lying there nearly lifeless. I grabbed his hand and told him we were there and that we had all made it. I told him everything I wanted to say. I broke down next to his bed as his oxygen level started to go down, down, and down. My kids cried for the first time in two years since he became ill. They were all so brave. We were all so positive he would pull through. Even after entering hospice, I think there was some small part of us all that hoped he would come out of this. We started to play his favorite songs and told stories that came to us at that moment. I will never forget witnessing my dad taking his final breath. His eyes opened and I swear we all watched his soul escape his body. It was the most beautiful and awful thing all at once.
The grief that I experienced that first Christmas was unbearable. The sadness from our loss was a pain in my heart that nothing and no one seemed to be able to console. A pastor friend said that all of the firsts are the hardest. This was so true. You find yourself saying that this is the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first birthday, that you will have without your loved one there. You may experience personal milestones and you long for that person to be a part of it.
You may receive good news and that loved one is the first person you think to call but they aren’t there. An entire set of emotions takes over you. You realize that you have to adjust to life without them. People who you thought would show up in your life may not and unexpected people may step in and fill that gap.
We were so fortunate to have so many friends volunteer to bring food each day so that we didn’t have to worry about dinners as we enjoyed our last days with our dad. They coordinated meals via an electronic sign-up sheet and even placed a cooler on our porch so that no one had to be bothered with the drop-off and pick-up of dishes. It was an unbelievable act of kindness that I will never forget.
The emotional and mental toll that losing a loved one takes on you is something you can never fully prepare yourself for.
Some people didn’t want to hear my grief as I mourned. I liked to talk about it as a means of comfort. It annoyed some as they expected a certain amount of time had passed and they approached me with a get over it already type of response, while others seemed entirely uncomfortable at my mention of grief. It was a learning experience, to say the least.
The first holiday, I only wanted to be near my mom. I elected to not venture out to other family and friends’ holiday gatherings. My heart was hurting and I wasn’t feeling very jovial. Again, not everyone understood, but I’ve learned it’s okay. Not everyone will get it and you need to give yourself permission to hurt, heal, grieve, mourn, and to feel all the feelings. No one can tell you how to feel or be. I dealt with emotions of how my dad was taken at the age of 56 and didn’t feel like that was fair. Death is never fair.
As the holidays approach and you feel that tug on your heart, I’d like to encourage you to embrace the feelings you are feeling. It’s okay to do whatever you feel you need to do to help yourself through, even if it means being absent. Yet for others, surrounding yourself with loved ones may help.
As you approach the holidays, maybe this is the first season without your loved one. Please know I am sending you a virtual hug right now! What helped me to cope was to set up a little corner of my house with some of my favorite pictures. My cousin Ronna owns a sign shop, The Rustic Thorn, and she made this for me. It helps me to have a space to go when I need it.
You can find your own special thing to do to honor your loved one. Donate to a charity in your loved one’s name or hold a special candlelight vigil in their honor. Something even as simple as setting aside some time for yourself to tell your loved one everything you want to say. I believe God lets them hear us. =) Sometimes, the holidays can be hard on those of us who are grieving but I have to remind myself that my dad always told us “not to cry for him and don’t be sad.” If it wasn’t for my dad, I would have never opened my own business Rae Soap Company. He inspired me to be an entrepreneur. Many of my customers know the story behind our startup.
If I wasn’t celebrating and enjoying my life after a time of mourning, I know my dad would not want that for me. As hard as it is sometimes to endure the pain of losing a loved one, the best way we can honor them is by continuing on to live our life. I couldn’t understand it at first but you grieve for a time, and then God turns your mourning into dancing. (Psalm 30:11)
You realize that the hardest part wasn’t losing them, it was learning to live without them Experiencing the loss of a loved one is something you never get over, rather you learn to get through it. For now, thank God for the time I did have with my dad and I imagine my dad is gone fishin’.
This holiday season, I hope that you find the peace that only God can give. I hope that you find some small moments to feel your loved one looking down on you and know that they are smiling at the person that you are today.