Category Archives: grief

Tidings Of Comfort and Joy

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This the final post in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Two family members will be missing from our family Christmas gatherings this year.

My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. She hadn’t been well enough to participate in our family Christmas celebrations for the past few years. Instead, we had established different traditions with her at the Healthcare Facility in which she lived.

My sister’s husband died in August as a result of Lymphoma, just one year after being diagnosed with what was believed to be a treatable cancer. We didn’t know last Christmas would be his final Christmas.

Many extended family members and friends are also facing their first Christmas after the loss of a loved one. The anticipation of seeing that empty chair can seem overwhelming. Recalling once-happy Christmas memories leaves you in tears.

I love Christmas music, despite the physical reaction I have to “O’ Holy Night” and “Silent Night.” Both cause my eyes to instantly fill with tearsThe first was one of my Dad’s favorite songs. It brings to mind the Christmas Eve Masses we attended. The second reminds me of my paternal Grandmother and her annual family party held on December 23rd.

At one point during the evening she would remind us to sing carols to invite Santa Claus’s arrival. Grandma would begin singing “Silent Night.” Looking back, maybe this was her clever crowd control:  Gather her 24 grandchildren and quiet them with the lullaby effect of a hymn! When I hear the song, I hear her voice.

A few weeks ago I was in the car with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” playing on the radio. The song suddenly had a different meaning as I listened to the lyrics.

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy? Wow! We were definitely in need of both this Holiday season. Where would we find them?

Then I unpacked some Christmas decorations. I was struck by the notes indicating the contents of some the boxes. It has been several years since my Mother and her Mother have written anything to me, but their handwriting is instantly recognizable.

Seeing the notes didn’t make me sad. It wasn’t even bittersweet. They made me smile. The notes are a connection to Christmases past, and a connection to my Mom and Grandma. I felt they were with me, giving me a decorating assist with their organized labeling. Funny, I didn’t know one day the real treasures in a box of Radko ornaments would be labels and crumpled sticky notes.

I think comfort can be found in our family traditions. As difficult it might be to carry on traditions without our loved ones, the familiar might be just what we need. They can at least get us in the groove, and provide a bit of a roadmap.

Traditions can be just as comforting when a new generation assumes them. My niece misses playing elf on her annual shopping day with her Dad, during which they would purchase a gift for her Mom. I imagine my niece’s  little elf-in-training will be shopping with her Daddy, very soon. How heartwarming is that?

I’m a fan of Christmas trees with eclectic decorations. Family heirloom ornaments that have hung on the tree for decades are some of my favorites. Whether they are legitimate antiques, a grade school craft, full of mid century kitsch or the coveted pickle, they tell the comforting history of family Holidays.

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Holiday menu fare includes family recipes that have become tradition. Grandma’s Jewish Coffee Cake, Mom’s Sugar Cookies, and Dad’s favorite cookies. We try to perfect those heirloom recipes in hope they will turn out exactly as they did when Mom or Grandma was cooking. After all, I think tradition is most comforting when it involves comfort food!

This Christmas, we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior, be visited by Santa, and exchange gifts, but how can we possibly get in the mood for actual merriment when we are sad, missing our loved one and face an empty chair?

The empty chair has become a symbol for the absence of loved ones at family gatherings. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. It is both literal and figurative, because the reality is, our missing loved ones took up more than a chair. This is especially true of my brother-in-law. His presence filled an entire room.

He lived his life in the spirit of the two main men of Christmas. He never had to ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” He just always did the right thing. He was a counselor in personal matters and a mentor in the business world.  Like Santa, he loved Christmas and gift giving. His quiet, usually anonymous generosity continued year round, and was life-changing for individuals and organizations.

With such a huge presence missing, how will we find joy?

My brother-in-law’s family gathered at my sister’s home to celebrate Christmas last weekend. His six siblings and their children and grandchildren numbering 60+ strong embraced the spirit of their  brother/uncle. They “adopted” an in-need family and purchased every item on the family’s wish list.

What an absolute abundance of joy, and an abundance of love. My sister shared with them, her family of 40+ years, that the gift of their presence was what she and her children most appreciated. She assured them that they needn’t to be afraid to talk about her husband or say his name. In fact, hearing stories helps her and her children feel close to him, and in a way – keeps him alive.

So, our biggest source of joy, will come from simply being together.  The delight of our smallest family members will keep us entertained. We’ll savor our culinary accomplishments. We’ll talk about our missing loved ones. We’ll say their names. There may be a few tears, but there will definitely be alot of laughs.

If you are grieving and facing the first Christmas since the loss of a loved one, I hope you are able to find true comfort and joy.

Go ahead. Hang the ornaments. Sing the carols. Cry the tears. Fill the chair. Share the stories. Laugh.

And eat the cookies.

 

 

 

On Grief And Gifts

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On Grief And Gifts

This is the 2nd post in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

The past year has been one of tremendous loss for my family.

A surprising number of friends and extended family have also recently experienced the loss of parents, siblings, spouses and even relationships. Perhaps this is due to terrible coincidences, or maybe simply our stage of life.

There is a plethora of articles and memes about grief, sometimes poetic, often cliché. We hear it is a process, it’s not a process, it is different for each person, and the price you pay for loving someone. It’s all merely a concept until you are walking through it, as so many family and friends are doing right now.

My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. While we were at peace with her passing from the indignities and pain of that disease, I was unprepared for how much I would miss her…even the version of her that dementia had left with us in her final years.

Then, there was my sister’s husband.

His sore back from too much puttering didn’t really worry us. It didn’t put a damper on an RV trip to Iowa, with his six siblings and their spouses for a long-anticipated family reunion. It was sort of a last hurrah for him before undergoing a stem cell transplant in August.

Then a stomach ache cut the trip short. An appointment with his oncologist turned into a hospital stay. Instead of answers, there were only questions and a steady stream of specialists. Our optimism that had been ever-present for exactly one year, began to fade.

Late on a hot July afternoon, after three days of diagnostics and procedures we had an answer. The trusted oncologist, a lovely man, gently delivered the news:

After just a few weeks, the insidious cancer had returned…the stem cell treatment scheduled for next month would not be an option…there were no clinical trials available…there was nothing more to be done…three months to live.

He accepted the news graciously and bravely. For everyone else, it was crushing. It felt unbearable. Later that evening, we tenderly talked about how we would fill our days in the next three months. Characteristically, he started his practical to-do list and even managed a bit of morbid humor.

Things quickly took a downturn. Three months became two weeks. There would be no time for alternative or holistic treatments. Nothing was checked off the bucket list. Meaningful, final conversations were not to be.

The family control freaks, the doers, and the problem solvers were helpless. The earth seemed to be spinning off its axis.  This isn’t supposed to be happening.

In the end, we had him for just one more week. We soaked up very minute of those days and nights, in the warm cocoon of their master bedroom. We communicated with him mainly in the form of his signature hand squeeze of the last 40+ years. The hand squeeze translation:  I love you.  Looking back -really, what more needed to be said?

While our Faith leads us to the belief in eternal life, grief and being human led to despair over unanswered prayers.

There was so much to be mourned, and so many layers of sadness.

Each time grief appears, it’s a Band-Aid® ripper, tearing open the wounds of previous losses. The circle of one life linked to the circle of another life in an ever-growing chain.

Grief is tangible in the early days surrounding a loss, and it is shared.

Eventually, life resumes and things return to “normal”. Grief becomes subtle and sneaky. It’s a thief, stealing the rhythm of daily routine, as one tries to put one foot in front of the other.

The quiet, stillness of the night vanishes after a stealthy heist by grief and its accomplice, insomnia. Restful slumber is replaced with anxiety. Decisions that were made with complete conviction are now doubted.

Nagging thoughts of coulda… woulda…shoulda creep in.

The hope that previously dawned with each morning disappears, as consciousness brings about the reality of the day. You don’t want to get sucked into the sadness. It propels you to get up and get moving, even if you only do so robotically.

But, grief is a prowler creeping in and out through the day.

It hijacks your solo drive time behind the wheel. Once productive time alone with your thoughts, it becomes a minefield of memories. Forget the radio. It’s suddenly melancholic. The best option is to use a lifeline, and phone a friend.

Grief occasionally makes off with your rational thinking.

At the end of that last perfect weekend, I created a calendar for August and September. It included stem cell transplant appointments and procedures, and fun events to look forward to. Looking back, I felt I counted our chickens before they hatched. My obsessive organizing had compelled me to publish that calendar. Clearly, I had jinxed my brother-in-law’s treatment and recovery! My delusion of controlling the universe was momentary!

Like a prankster, grief pops out from hiding when you least expect it. During a recent trip to Target, I automatically reached for a display of Christmas socks. In my Mom’s final years, she had grown fond of those goofy, printed socks. They were already in my hand when it hit me…no need for socks to warm Mom’s tootsies. Ever. Oh no, did I have dementia? How could I forget  Mom had died? Was grief stealing my sanity, too?

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The human spirit is a life-force, and we optimists and faithful are always on the lookout for silver linings.

We soon realize grief is not all takin’ and no givin’.

Loss and grief give you a new perspective and enlightenment. You now distinguish real problems from minor inconveniences that warrant nothing more than a shoulder shrug.

While you may be filled with disbelief, and thoughts of  I can’t believe this happened are still running through your head, grief eventually leads you to a place of thankfulness. With time and reflection, you are even able to see the blessings that surrounded the unbearable loss.

Every expression of sympathy is appreciated. Especially months after a loss, each phone call, text, and thoughtful note is a Godsend.

The extraordinary kindnesses of acquaintances is especially meaningful. The people whom cross your path and without prompting, share news of their recent loss are a serendipitous comfort. You know it wasn’t accidental that they sat next to you in a waiting room, or rang up your purchases in a store.

You have immense appreciation for the people who are really there for you – the people who go out of their way and make time to walk through the particularly shitty times with you.

Then there are the folks, not necessarily those closest to you, whose support is profound. Their gestures of sympathy are different.  It’s not that they have the “right” words, they just have real words. These are the folks who have walked the same path, and as a result, possess true empathy.

We lose so much with the death of a loved one, but one of the greatest gifts we receive as a result of the loss is empathy.

We just have to be willing to receive it, open it, and use it.

Because empathy is a gift meant to be shared. It links us together in another circle of life.

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When Life Was Peachy

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Part 1 of  a 3-part series.

You can find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

 

 

No matter how many times we are reminded how quickly life can change, we are still caught off guard when it does.

When tragedy strikes, we often wish we could hit the rewind button. Logically, we know we couldn’t have altered the course of events, but we wish we could relive those precious last days, weeks, and months. We imagine how we would savor every moment.

I wanted  a complete do-over of  Summer 2016 when I came across this forgotten photo on my phone:img_1135I snapped this shot from the patio of my brother and sister-in-law’s lake cottage, during their granddaughter’s 10th birthday party. I vaguely remember taking the photo. I wasn’t focused on anything in particular, but I think Old Glory waving in the wind must have caught my attention. The weather on that mid-July day was delightfully perfect, but this photo barely captures that.

It’s a beautiful shot, but also a painful reminder of one of the last days that summer seemed sunny and peachy. One of the final days before a cascade of events changed life for my family. I wanted to go back in time. Back to before a stomach ache began.

Of course, there are no mulligans in life. The only place life can rewind is in the mind.

Summer began on a happy note. May and June were lovely, fun-filled, blessedly ordinary months. We didn’t know that for our family, Summer 2016 would eventually become “the summer that wasn’t.”

What occurred each day during the month of July is crystal clear in my memory. The bitter and the sweet. The sweetness of early July is easy to remember…

How my 50 pounds of Georgia Peaches had ripened to perfection for canning, inconveniently on July 1st. Early that morning, to the dismay of my sister I set up my canning operation in the kitchen of her lake cottage…amid the July 4th weekend chaos. “This won’t take long!” I assured her. One quart in, and and my sister was headed to the E.R. for stitches. The perils of peach pitting, or conveniently dodging doing dishes for the entire holiday weekend?

I became a sloppy one woman operation. The sweet mess that covered every surface of the kitchen at the end of the day, was a metaphor for those first six weeks of summer. It was a deliciously golden time.

It was a cottage bustling with three generations, and kids at three stages: A toddler working on his first steps. Preschoolers in some unsactioned competition: seeing who could tear through the house at the highest speed, while simultaneously yelling gibberish at the highest decibel level. Teens enjoying quality family time devoted to social media.

There was a July 4th shrimp boil. A joint 70th birthday party for dear cousins. A work trip to San Antonio for me.

Tinkerbell landing in Nana’s Fairy Garden. Golf cart shopping.  Donut runs at dawn by boat.

Coffee talk. Bloody Mary mornings. Margarita afternoons.

Trips for ice cream in the evening. Lazy pontoon rides. Hours playing on Lily Pads.

Fishing. Fireworks.

Endless and hilarious rounds of Little Sally Walker walkin’ down the street.

I’ve heard it said,  “You never realize you’re having the time of your life, until that time has passed.” It’s true. We were blissfully unaware of just how good life was.

In a way, it seems cruel that we didn’t know the fate that awaited.

Sure, a stem cell transplant was scheduled, but we believed it would be a success. Optimism, hope and faith gave us that belief.

Disbelief, disappointment and devastation loomed ahead, but we didn’t know it.

Optimism, hope, faith and love would sustain us through that, too…