My Grandpa Died Yesterday: When Christmas is a Blur

Some of us have been dreading Christmas this year.

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/hayesphotography

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/hayesphotography

Seeing the happy commercials on television, hearing people talk about holiday parties and gift shopping has felt empty and foreign. It’s as though the world is spinning around you as you stand still.

There’s the temptation and perhaps the need to put on a face as you see certain people or go to different events, but nothing can budge the grief you are feeling or the dread as Christmas stands immovable, like some strange monument, to remind you, as if you could forget, that you’re without your loved one this year.

I remember the Christmas that spun around me without my participation. My grandpa had been dying of cancer for months, chemotherapy treatments, emergency brain surgery, and marijuana pills for the pain had all led to the night of December 22nd when, with my grandma, aunts & parents, we sat around grandpa’s hospital bed at home and talked about Christmases from the past. I massaged his head, he couldn’t speak, open his eyes, or communicate with us but there was still that sense of him hearing what we said. It was a wonderful night.

We went home late, I was getting ready for bed just after midnight when my dad got the call that my grandpa had died. My grandpa had waited. He listened to all our stories, enjoyed that last night with us, and after we left and my aunts & grandma were in bed, he passed away while Silent Night played softly.

“All is calm, all is bright.”

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/bitterfly

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/bitterfly

It didn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel that way 7 years later. I felt so guilty last year when I realized that I had gone 6 years without seeing my grandpa and that I was “ok” – how could I be ok without him for 6 years? While the truth is that I’ve made it 7 years now without him, and live a healthy and normal life, I am not “over” my loss of him. I cry every Christmas and other times besides when I think of him and horror of the cancer and the beauty of his last night.

Here’s what I want you to know as someone grieving during the holidays:

– This Christmas is going to be really hard. There is nothing that is going to take away how much you miss someone, how much you want them home with you for Christmas. Nothing can fix that and yet SO many people will tell you that there is a fix; that time, love, or family will fix it – they’re wrong. This is going to be hard, and I want you to know that I’m so sorry that it is.

– Say “No” to guilt. If you want to be around people on Christmas but feel guilty, say no to the guilt. If you want to be alone or want to have a few hours in the morning of remembering & crying, do that.

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/JeanValley

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/JeanValley

– Create or Honor a Tradition. If your loved one had something special that they did for the holidays, do it to honor them. If you always went and saw a movie on Christmas Eve, do it and maybe save them a seat. If they loved eggnog, have an eggnog toast in their honor.

This year, to honor my grandfather, I wrote this blog. What could you do?

 

– Reach out to others missing your loved one. It’s never you alone that’s sad, although your loss is unique, there are others missing your loved one as well. If you acknowledge it together, it’s a good thing. So do something that commemorates your loved one and allows your family and friends who are also mourning to join you.

If you are experiencing this holiday season with that empty chair, remember that it’s ok to focus on the empty chair. Don’t let guilt cloud your mind, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, about what you need, and about the dread or discomfort you may feel at Christmas this year.

Please know that you are in our hearts this Christmas, that we care about you and we want your grief to be acknowledged for the significant pain and journey that it is.

We also want to honor your loved one. If you would please tell us about who you are missing this Christmas, we’d love to know about them. It doesn’t matter if they passed away this year or 20 years ago, they were special and wonderful and we’d love to hear their story.

Empty chair on the beach

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/bitterfly

In Memory of James E. Turner

June 28, 1932 – December 23, 2006

 

Molly Keating

About Molly Keating

Hello! I'm Molly and I run & manage the Blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.
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  • Lori

    Molly,
    As I read your tribute to your Grandpa, I was especially touched by your last evening together. I hear this from so many families that their loved one held on for that last special moment. It’s a beautiful gift from God that, in cases like this, families are given that time of closure…of saying “Goodbye” as a family.
    This year has hit me hard and I am missing many…those I had in my life and grieving what I thought Christmas would look like for me by this stage of my life and it hasn’t turned out as planned.
    Even in times of being alone and feeling sad, I know who holds the plan for my life and I know I will reunite with many of those I am missing today….
    Merry Christmas to you and your family……
    Lori

    • Lori, I’m so sorry you’re facing a Christmas that is without so many but also not meeting the expectations you had for yourself. I know your faith holds you in peace but that doesn’t take away the pain of disappointment and loss.
      Thank you for sharing that this isn’t the most “joy-filled” of Christmases, I think it helps so many people to know that the dream we all chase of a “perfect Christmas” is elusive, and you know what, it’s also not what Christmas is. Christ came just as we are, helpless and small, he sees your heart Lori, He’s near.

      Merry Christmas my dear friend.

  • Jeff Turner

    Molly,

    We lived that Christmas together and yet in some ways separately. I say that only because our relationship was different. Your grandpa, my father. I remember arriving back at his bedside some moments after midnight and it was clear to my eyes that he had slipped off the “tent” and had moved on. He was an adventurer to say the least and I have thought many times of the line from “Peter Pan” when Peter says, “To die would be such a great adventure.” Grandpa loved life and family and I know it was hard for him to go. Spending that last evening with him was poignant permission for him to move on to the next great journey.

    Our team from O’Connor came to transfer Dad to the mortuary and I followed to spend silent hours embalming him in the deep of that night. I arrived back home before the sunrise and fell into restless sleep. Everything had changed. Life was suddenly different. Later that morning I drove my sisters and my mother to the beach. We went there instinctively as so much of our lives had been spent sailing the very same ocean we longed to see. It was the first activity we would do as a family of four. The sense that he was missing was palpable. The idea that we were now facing life without him was un-scaleable. Christmas eve and Christmas day that year were an absolute blur. I see the pictures from those days and recall the fog and dazed malaise of those times.

    Seven years and it still hurts. At our Holiday Memorial Service Garrett Erickson shared the sentiment that “grief is the price we pay for having loved.” It is wholly true. The alternative would be sociopathic. I choose to grieve. To sit in it a little while and not try to move on to the next task too quickly. One of the detriments of our society is the lost art of pausing, reflecting and taking stock of what is truly important.

    Even so, Happy Christmas. It was Dad’s… Grandpa’s favorite holiday. He left a couple of days early so that we might take pause, sit in the sadness of loss so that we value our connectedness while we have it.

    • Dad, so beautifully said. I didn’t know that you went to the beach after but I love that you did.
      I was listening to that Manheim Steamroller version of Silent Night while I wrote this and remembered mom telling me when I was a kid how she had always imagined her dad’s spirit leaving him in the sound of the wind. I think the same thing when I hear it but think of Grandpa Turner now, too. Wind carried him all around the world on adventure, but the winds also bring change and with change of any kind, there is grief.

      I love what you wrote, getting insight into your experience, I still say you should write yourself on here. Love you Dad.

      Merry Christmas

  • Fitz

    Molly,
    Very touching blog. Holidays and anniversaries are always the hardest. You will never get over the loss of your grandpa but you will get through it. With each year, you will look back on the fondest of memories of him. Keep those alive.
    For me, the holidays are always tough not having my mother with our family. She died at the age of 51. I remember thinking at the time of her death (I was 22 at the time) that she had lived a full life. What a perspective! Having turned 51 this year, I have a different perspective and appreciation for her and my own life.
    Thanks for sharing and God Bless,
    Fitz

    • Fitz,
      Wow, what a perspective changer. Dying at 51 doesn’t mean your life wasn’t rich and meaningful, but I’m sure now being 51 you are seeing with opened eyes the joys she didn’t get to see. Grief re-surges like this and the loss continues to get deeper and bigger as more time passes.

      I would have loved to have met your mom, she had to be hilarious and so sweet to have raised someone like you.

      Thanks for sharing Fitz, Merry Christmas to you.

  • Becky Finch Lomaka

    Ok – let me wipe the tears away as I try to write to you, Molly. I weep for my brother, whose death has left his children in so much pain and has left my parents with holes in their hearts that can never be repaired. I weep for my colleagues who have lost a spouse, siblings, parents and grandparents. I weep for my friends, the Strales, who lost their dear boy to cancer this year. I weep for the families we serve.

    It is not fair, it is not right, it just IS. Our lives will never be the same, but we still rise every morning and we go on the best we can. We live our lives, we love those still here with us and we try to keep our loved ones’ memories alive. But we grieve and we cry and we miss them dearly – and that is ok too.

    • Amen Becky. What more can we do but try, make our best effort, and find ways to preserve their memories so that we don’t lose focus in the chaos of life’s insignificant details.

      My prayers go out to you this Christmas, to your dear family who is suffering so unjustly from a death that seems so senseless and cruel. I think of the Strale’s, too. Of that unimaginable pain that they share with your parents in the loss of a child. What more can we do but talk about it, listen, cry, remember, release & breathe.

      I don’t know how this Christmas will be for you, I know just by your spirit that there will be lots of smiling & joy but in the hard parts & moments of the day I hope you feel free to remember.

      Merry Christmas, Becky.

  • Anne

    Molly
    Everyone says I am courageous and strong, and I guess I am, but this first Christmas, I just want Lou back to take care of me, to take care of things. There’s a song that says Please come home for Christmas, and if not for Christmas, then by New Year’s Eve. Every time I hear it, I put out my foolish wish for it to be so, which is not what will be. I know I will get over this, too. I will eventually get my joy back. It comes from focusing on others and their needs and I know I will get back to that in time. My daughter and grandkids are wonderful. My friends are great. My church is full of supportive people. My pastor and his wife are dear. I actually have a lot to be thankful for. But then the impossible desires won’t stay squashed down, so what do you do??
    Love
    Annie

    • Anne,
      That last question is one I just don’t have an answer for. I guess you just want them, and keep wanting them. You loved him so much and couldn’t stop loving him so how could you stop missing him – you just can’t.
      You have been so present in my mind as this holiday has approached. I’m praying for you, that the day might hold unexpected surprises, little joys that God brings just for you. I trust He will, and I hope that it brings some of the joy we have in Christ to you this Christmas.
      Love you so much Anne, Merry Christmas to you.

  • Well written words of your heart Molly. Interesting when we are faced ourselves with what others we serve face, our perspectives are different. Cheers!

    • Jeff, it’s so true.
      I grew up around mortuaries but the death of my grandpa is what actually sparked my passion for grief ministry and my interest in this profession.
      I’m grateful for the experience, that it helps me in a small way to speak to the tremendous grief that faces all of us throughout our lives.
      Thank you for the kind words & for reading, Merry Christmas Jeff!

  • Mark,
    There aren’t words. Everyone’s Christmases are filled with memories of family, but to have a birthday on such a special Eve I’m sure made your celebrations all the merrier. These are landmark days for your family, and facing that first time through them feeling unguided and alone is always going to be the worst one. Next year may only feel better because you know you’ve survived it once, but the pain of the double loss you suffered this year is staggering to me, Mark.
    The only truth I know for certain is that the Lord is near.
    My prayer is that you would see some special moments of blessing from Him this Christmas.

  • Mark,
    I don’t have words. Everyone’s Christmases hold memories of family & celebration but how much merrier yours must be coupled with a special birthday.
    These are landmarks that you are passing through for the first time without the guiding presence of your parents and while you’ll make it, I’m sure it seems difficult to see how.
    The only truth I know for certain Mark, is that the Lord is near. I sincerely hope that you sense a special blessing from Him, some perfect gift just for you this Christmas.

  • Thanks Neil,
    I see him doing the same thing, so wonderful & cool. My brother as well, the Turner men are natural teachers. Love them all.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Mitch

    Thank you for sharing your feelings about your grandpa. I haven’t gone through anything like that. All my relatives live back east. I am dreading the day that i do go through those experiences. Try to have a merry christmas and remember your grandpa fondly.

    • Thank you so much Mitch. As awful as his death was, it’s an experience I really treasure – it was just indescribable and something I feel privileged to at least have helped him with. Dying is such an odd thing. We should dread these things, but we can also find so much power and profound meaning in them.

      Thank you for your wishes!

  • Shasta Cola

    Molly, what a beautiful blog, and so true. I like the second paragraph, I can identify a lot with that. There is a sense of dread that Christmas is here, even though it is supposed to be a happy time, it feels more like a reminder that someone is not here anymore. It seems even more evident during these times, it’s almost like “let’s just get this Christmas thing over with” even though I am excited to spend it with my family who is still here. I know that we will all be trying to put on our happy faces but there will come a time in the day when each one of us is breaking down either outwardly or on the inside, and even though I know it is healthy to do that I kind of dread it. I also can relate to your story about your grandfather, my grandmother died in 2005 and it still seems weird that so much time has passed without her and I’ve made it through all of these years just fine. That does come with a sense of guilt. But I think the most important thing is to remember the ones we’ve lost and to know that they are still with us, somehow, in spirit or in memory and that they live on as long as we keep them in our hearts.

    • Shasta,
      I didn’t know about your grandmother, it’s nice to hear that I’m not alone in those thoughts or feelings – you do tend to feel a little crazy at times, especially if no one else you know has experienced something like that.
      I sincerely hope your Christmas was wonderful, that the sense of having to “get through it” was eased and dissipated as you gathered with all your siblings & family.
      We need to talk more! That’s what I’m taking away from this. Thank you for sharing your side, your thoughts & feelings. They are so resonating and important. I really value your insight. Thank you!

      Molly

  • Michael Thomas

    Hey there Molly

    I had a similar experience with a dear friend of mine. She hadn’t passed around christmas, but my best buds and I spent about 5-6 hours at the hospital before we went home. She then passed about an hour later. This person had spent about 6 years taking care of my two best friends and I, and I like to think the last thing she wanted was to “take care” of us by letting us rest and take the gentle news of her passing the next day. The time spent at the hospital gave us closure, and the soft words of my friends mom the next morning gave us comfort. Thank you for sharing this very real and very personal experience.

    Love,
    Michael

    • Michael,
      I’d love to hear more about your experience, it sounds like it was very powerful. There certainly is something to the waiting that the dying do, how they can linger on for us, or for themselves, and finally release after we’ve said our goodbye’s and given them permission.
      Thank you so much for sharing your story, I look forward to asking you more about it.

      Molly

  • Jenn

    Great blog Molly, it is important to acknowledge the elephant in the room. My grandparents on my mom’s side are both in their 90’s and every year it feels like everyone is thinking “this may be their last year” and we take special note to take lots of pictures and share special memories. I know there will be a first Christmas without them in the future but I am glad that every one we have had for the last few years had been special for them and will always have lots of fun pictures and Christmas memories to help me through the holidays when they are gone.

    • Yes, those pictures and memories are so important. As my grandpa got sicker family & friends began traveling in to see him & take pictures with him. Even though he looked so sick & not like himself, I’m glad to have those pictures of him.

      I’m so sorry that you are feeling that anxiety and fear of losing your grandparents, it’s such a difficult place to be. I hope this was not your last Christmas with them, but that if it was, there would be comfort in having it be a very special and full time. Thank you for sharing Jenn.

  • Shayna Mallik

    Molly, this was a beautiful blog to honor your grandfather. He would be so proud of you!!! Christmas is a hard time when you have lost someone close to you, it is a weird time as well. Christmas has always been a happy time but when you have lost someone dear you learn how the holidays are just different, yes you still celebrate with the loved ones that are with you but as you said, you are missing the ones who have passed. About 10 ish years ago I lost my uncle to lung cancer that metastasized to the brain. I was very young and my parents protected me from going to the funeral. I still miss him visiting from Pittsburgh and giving me his bear hugs. Then a few years ago I lost my other uncle. He was shot and killed. This death I understood more and also was at the funeral. My uncle would always come out for the holidays or around the holidays and now since he is not here it is still so weird. Thank you for this amazing blog!!!

    • Wow Shayna, those are really tough losses. I’m so sorry that you lost your uncles so young and so tragically. It is definitely times of tradition and gathering that most sharply bring those feelings of missing them & re-awakens our grief. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a Christmas where I don’t have just one evening where I cry for a bit & think of my grandfather. It doesn’t lessen my Christmas spirit but it lets my soul move through the rest of the festivities with relief & perspective.

      Thanks for reading Shayna!

  • Erin Fodor

    13 years later and the holidays are not any easier. Even though I end up enjoying the
    holiday, my mother and I and fight the same thoughts every year. When will this be over? We have an extremely difficult time getting motivated to do anything. Seeing the family always turns out to be a wonderful experience. It’s just willing yourself to go, knowing it wont be the same as past years. The holidays are forever changed when you loose someone dear.

  • Jadie,
    Your blog is beautiful. I think cemeteries are very appropriate places to spend a piece of our holiday, as you do – but that is because of what we have experienced. Having said that, I didn’t visit my grandfather’s grave at Christmas time but I did think about him so much. Visiting his grave is hard and as much as I like doing it, I also feel dread as I make my way.

    I’m so touched by your story of you and your grandfather. It sounds like the two of you had a remarkably close relationship. Thank you so much for sharing your story, it’s such an interesting thing to know someone else has been through something similar, there’s comfort but a sense of pain for you as well. I”m so sorry that you lost him, thank you for writing about him & for sharing with me today.

    Molly

  • Jynee,
    I am so sorry. Grief already feels so insurmountable but when it is compounded like that it is exactly as you put it, just overwhelming. Then, there’s not just the grief of the loss, but also the trauma of watching your father die a painful and miserable death. There’s horror mixed with your grief and that’s very important to not forget. You aren’t suffering from, for lack of a better phrase, “just one thing” – just grief, but compounded grief, something like PTSD & a sense of your family dwindling. These are such difficult issues and I sincerely hope that you are giving yourself grace as you wade through them and that you have a steady support team of people that can listen and love you.
    I’m glad this blog allowed you to share your losses with me, I’m humbled to learn about the deaths in your life and about where you are in the aftermath.
    You are in my thoughts & prayers as you face this year without them and anticipate these painful first anniversaries.

    If there is anything I can do to help you please let me know.

    Sincerely,
    Molly
    mkeating@oconnormortuary.com

  • Carrie,
    This one is just too tough. I fell apart reading this, knowing that we’ve both lost someone we dearly loved to those awful tumors is an odd but precious bond. I have the easier grief in the knowledge that my grandfather lived many years doing wonderful & crazy things – it was as full as 70 odd years can be and while he still should’ve had 10-15 more, I’ll be grateful for what I got with him.
    There’s just no comfort like that available when I think of Jeff. So young, so beloved, so much ahead to see and do. My heart breaks for your family and while I know those extra few years are priceless in value, there just should have been more.
    I want to hear more about your Christmas, about what it was like, and how you made it through this first big marker as a changed family.

    Thank you so much for your sweet words, my grandpa and Jeff were wonderful men.

    molly

  • Christopher Iverson

    Molly,

    Thank you for sharing. We all know how death can redefine the holidays for each family that we serve, including our own. I feel the challenge is to find the “celebrate the season” even when instinctively we do not want to without our loved one. But ultimately, as life goes on I hope that we can always incorporate the loss into the celebration because, in almost all cases, the life lived is far greater than the death suffered through.

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  • Rebecca

    Molly,
    I know this is from a couple years ago, but it helped me today. My sister passed away this past February. It has been a really tough year to get through. It was sudden and kind of expected at the same time. She lead a hard life, so it was something we always feared. Just wished with everything in our souls would never happen. And now it’s Christmas, the happiest time of year, and I’m missing my sister. There isn’t a single thing that can bring someone back and that is the hardest thing to accept. They will never be here to share in the joy of watching her kids grow up to be amazing young people. Or to spend another holiday with us. But I can say, she is not in turmoil any longer, she doesn’t have to fight an inner battle that no one could help her with. I just miss her. Her name was Kathryn Elizabeth.
    Rebecca

    • Rebecca,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

      I am so sorry for the death of your sister Kathryn Elizabeth. You made it through Christmas somehow but now you are facing the year anniversary of losing her. These milestones can feel like they are all clustered together and like it’s just a gauntlet of painful days to get through.

      As I read your comment I could feel some of the sorrow, numbness, and pain you are experiencing in your grief. I noticed that you began to twist your grief into a viewpoint that offered some solace or, even hope. You mention the “amazing” children that your sister is missing – there is so much heartbreak in that sentence, but there is also a legacy.

      I want you to know that I am feeling for you and thinking of you as January comes to a close and this February ushers you into your second year without her. No doubt, this year will bring new ways for you to both grieve and cherish her memory.

      Again, thank you so much for sharing with me and please, continue to correspond whenever you feel like it. It is my treasure and privilege to learn from people like you.

      Sincerely, Molly