A Different Kind of Christmas

Originally, I had an idea for this blog post to write about something very festive since Christmas is now only three weeks away. However, it just didn’t come together, and I almost decided it was just not meant to be a blog post writing day after all. And then I stumbled upon a Christmas song I didn’t expect to find. It is on the YouTube video at the bottom of this blog post titled, Different Kind of Christmas,” by Mark Schultz, a contemporary Christian music artist. In Mark’s case, the song was written about his father-in-law who had passed away, and he and his wife were experiencing their first Christmas without him.

At some point in time, we all lose a loved one–parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse, a child, other close relatives, a best friend, and anyone who took up a significant part of our heart while they were alive. This year, along with my two brothers and their families, we lost our last parent–our Dad, and Grandpa to my niece and nephews, in June when he died a month shy of his 96th birthday. We were fortunate to have him around for so long. Our mother passed away almost 37 years ago at the age of 54, and our stepmother passed away at 86 in 2011.

In an article titled, Surviving Your First Christmas After the Death of Your Last Parent,” by Kara Jane, a born and raised Texan who blames my sweet Dad for my heavy Texas accent,” and loves cake and writing on her blog (to include cake recipes), IScreamforButterCream.com,” she writes:

My last parent passed away this year. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the holidays coming up. Now, I will tell you that I am not one to wear and/or show all my emotions on my sleeve. I’m also not one to get all depressed about the fact my parents won’t be around when holidays or birthdays roll around… until now. What’s the difference? Well, losing that last parent.

Thirteen years ago, my mother died of an aneurysm. I was twenty-seven years old…now you can do the math to see how old I am now ;). I had just bought a house entirely on my own and she was just about as proud as a person could be. We talked every day.

Now, we didn’t get along 100% of the time, but who does really. My son was seven at the time and while it was very hard for me, it was particularly hard on him.

I have heard before that you never really get over a parent’s death. I agree with that, but only partly. As the years go by, the sting of it lessons. When she first died, I would remember first thing in the morning when I woke up. We used to talk on the phone while I was on my way home from work almost every day, so that was the time of day that was the hardest. I’d suck it up all day at work and then I would cry on my way home every day.

I did that for almost two weeks, and then some days came when I didn’t cry on my way home. And then I could go for a week and not cry. Time is the medicine. I don’t like clichés and the ‘time heals all wounds’ is one I particularly dislike. Although it is true, to a point, the truer statement would be that time lessons the sting of wounds. That’s what I have found.

I won’t say I think about my mom every day. I hear people say things like, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.” In all honesty, that’s just not true for me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love her. It just means I’ve healed… for the most part anyway. I also don’t think we need to feel guilty about NOT thinking about that person every day. Honestly, I don’t think that’s very healthy to dwell on every single day.

Fast forward to this year. In February, my Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given two weeks to live. He lived one extra week, just to show them who was boss.

Now, having lost one parent already, I knew what I was up against… the difficulty with making daily decisions, the anger and agitation at just little things and the need to be alone yet everyone wanting to ‘be there’ for me. I seriously misjudged how much more difficult it would be to lose my last parent.

If you’ve gone through this, you’ll know what I mean. I had wonderful parents and a wonderful childhood. My parents were my rock… my safety net. Parents are the two people who will love you unconditionally. Yes, I know your child will love you and your spouse will love you, but I’m sorry, it’s just not the same. I know my husband loves me and we took our vows seriously, but his love for me, or mine for him, is not the same kind of unconditional love as a parent’s love.

Not having a parent living in this world with you is like walking a tightrope and there’s no net. Now, I don’t mean a safety net in terms of finances or housing. I mean a safety net as having those two people who will always have your back. Even though you have friends and other family members, it is a feeling of being completely alone. It’s final. I’m it now.

If you are feeling this now, I want you to know that you are not alone. I am right there with ya.

Christmas wreaths on Veterans’ graves 11-28-19

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the holidays and I know there are times it’s going to get to me. Now, I will tell you that I do not like to show vulnerability to people. Words and writing are fine, but I make a point not to cry in front of people if I can help it. There is nothing my husband, nor anyone else, can do for me to take that pain away and I don’t like looking vulnerable in front of people. Maybe I’m weird, but to each his own, right?

I was thinking the other day about how every holiday season, my husband and I have to coordinate events between both of our families and his kids’ mom. It dawned on me that I have no one to coordinate with this year. It sort of makes you feel like your side of the family has just been wiped off the face of the earth. I guess that’s exactly what happened.

So, knowing what was coming up, I sat down to come up with some strategies to help myself this holiday season. I’m a planner and I guess it makes me feel better to try to plan out a strategy for dealing with things.

I wanted to share these strategies with you in the hopes that if you are dealing with something similar, it may help you too… or at the very least, keep you from feeling like you’re alone in this.

1. Replace the sad memories with happy ones:

The death of my Dad is still pretty raw. I sat with him as he died and at times, that comes back to me. When it does, I immediately try to think of something else. That probably isn’t the healthiest way to deal with it, I know, but I also don’t want to torture myself. So, I’ve decided when those memories of sitting with him while he was passing show up, instead of thinking about something completely different, I’m going to make an effort to remember something fun and meaningful we did together.

Maybe the times he let us ride on the tractor with him, or when he taught me to swim or to ride a bike. I’m going to make a real effort to replace the memory of his death, with good and happy memories. I want you to try it too. Replace whatever that memory is that’s making you uncomfortable. Replace it with a happy time. I’m not saying that will take away the sadness. On the contrary, it may make you miss them more, but here’s the thing… you’ll be remembering them the way they’d want you to remember them.

2. Stop with the guilt:

No, I’m not talking about feeling guilty over things you did or things you didn’t do when that person was alive. That is something that cannot be changed and if you are doing that to yourself, stop it… you are just torturing yourself. No, what I mean is stop feeling guilty over how long you’ve been grieving. I don’t mention it that much to people because, well, people feel the need to insert their opinions about it, whether or not they have any idea what it feels like. I don’t want to hear from people, well it’s been 6 months, or it’s been almost a year, so…  They leave the end of the sentence hanging because they don’t want to say to you, it’s been enough time now.  What they don’t understand is that it isn’t like you’re sad all the time, or in a state of utter depression. The grief just kind of comes and goes.

My advice to you, and to myself, is to not feel guilty if you still have trouble with it at times. That’s not weird or abnormal and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t feel guilty if you aren’t a crying mess. Sometimes people handle it differently. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me, it’s not the crying that affects me the most, it’s irritability. I try not to be so hard on myself about it.

3. Remember your parent (the way they truly were):

That sounds like a given, but hear me out. If you’re like me, when you think about your parent, it makes you sad that they aren’t here. This is sort of secondary to my first tip, but I’m going to make an effort to let myself remember them the way they truly were. People tend to elevate the dead to sainthood, so fight the urge to do that. All of us have our imperfections. I’m going to make an effort to remember my parents in all their imperfect glory… I actually find it quite humorous to think about all their eccentricities. Try it.

4. Find someone who has gone through it to talk to.

I don’t care how understanding and empathetic a person is, if they have not been through the same thing, they won’t fully understand. It helps to talk to someone who has. My husband is a very ‘feely’ type of a person. If I cry, he’ll cry, but even though he says he feels my pain… he does not fully feel it. His mother, however, does and I sometimes say a few things to her about it. She has lost both parents and although we do not have a ‘pity party’ discussing it, it’s just nice to know someone else who knows how it feels.

Lastly, I think we all kind of look for ways to lessen the pain or difficulty of a situation… I know I do. I try ways to get around it, by occupying my mind constantly and distracting myself. Here’s the thing, I’m going to have to get through it at some point. I’m going to have to stare it in the face and not flinch. It’s going to hurt and there’s not much that is going to sooth it. Some days I may feel like distraction and some days I may feel more like facing it. But for the holidays, I’m going to do my best not to put them to the back of my mind with distraction. They deserve to be remembered, especially during the holidays, even if it hurts.

If you’re reading this and are going through something similar, I hope this has helped you in some small way. If it has, please share with someone else you think might need it. And just know that you’re not alone. (Quote source here.)

As she stated in her last paragraph, what she wrote has helped me (thank you, Kara Jane) and I hope it has helped you, too, by sharing it with you as she requested if you’ve gone through a significant loss, too.

Now before you listen to the YouTube video below by Mark Schultz, you might want to have some Kleenex handy. I just thought I’d warn you ahead of time. I’ll end this post with a couple of quotes I found on LetYourLoveGrow.com.” The first quote is by Emily DickinsonUnable are the loved to die, for love is immortality; and the second quote is by Henry Wadsworth LongfellowHe spake well who said that…

Graves . . .

Are the footprints . . .

Of angels . . . .

YouTube Video: “Different Kind of Christmas” (2014) by Mark Schultz:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Forever Changed

It’s been two weeks since I’ve been on my laptop as I’ve been a little busy. I spent eight days between July 10-18, 2019 going back home (and driving 2000 miles round trip) to my hometown in Iowa to attend my father’s funeral that was held on July 13, 2019. Dad actually died on June 22, 2019, just one month shy of his 96th birthday, and I wrote a eulogy for him on that day on my other blog titled, A Eulogy for Dad.”

Dad had a hand in putting together his own funeral service before he died, and he made new friends before his passing with the people at the funeral home. His mind and sense of humor were sharp right up until he drew his last breath. He even included three songs in his funeral service that tells a story in song of his life. The first song was Unforgettable; the second song was Amazing Grace”; and the last song was Joy to the World/Jeremiah was a Bullfrog by Three Dog Night.

Vintage T-6 Texan from 1944

Dad enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 during WWII, and he received his Gold Wings as a Naval Aviator during the war and remained in the Naval Reserves for a total of 21 years. During that time, he flew 19 different WWII Navy fighter planes up to and including swept wing jets. He loved to fly whenever he could and flew 37 different aircraft (including the T-6 Texan pictured here during WWII), both military and civilian throughout his life. He was extremely proud of his military service and career. (Source here.) More history about Dad is written in his obituary at Resthaven Funeral Home.

Dad’s funeral service was a tribute and celebration of a life well lived. His graveside service included a 21-gun salute, a “fly-over” by a T-6 Texan aircraft that circled the graveside a couple of times, and two sailors in dress uniform–one sailor who presented the flag draped over Dad’s coffin to my niece, and the other sailor who played Taps.” Not many folks make it to almost 96 years of age, and he was one of those who did. We were fortunate to have had him in our lives for so long, but even with him being around for that many years, his death is hard to bear. As my older brother said during his eulogy for Dad during Dad’s funeral service, we thought he would be around forever since he had been around for so long.

But no one lives forever, at least not on this earth. We all die someday, but this is not to be seen as a grim reality. A reality it is, but “grim” is only a choice if we choose to make it so. My two brothers and I lost our mother back in 1983 when she was only 54 (from health issues that started with adult onset diabetes that she was diagnosed with shortly after my parents divorced in the mid-1960’s when I was 12). I was 30 at the time of Mom’s death, and it propelled me into a new direction in life that I had never previously thought about taking. Within five months of her death, I ended up cancelling the wedding I had planned shortly after her death before I made what would have been a huge mistake by marrying that particular guy; and I enrolled at a state university to finish the last two years of my bachelor’s degree that I had started in 1977 when I completed a two-year associate’s degree in 1979. I quit the job I had for several years at a hospital, and I found an editorial secretary job at that state university that worked around my class schedule. Two years later I received my bachelor’s degree, and eventually I went on to earn a master’s degree, and shortly after that I was awarded a one-year doctoral fellowship in the area of higher education administration and adult education.

With Dad’s death, I am now 67–over twice as old as I was when Mom died. There is far less “future” at this age for me then there was at 30, but no one knows how long they will live (not even those who are young). Since Dad’s funeral was just eight days ago as of this writing, I am still in the process of getting my equilibrium back as to what the future will hold now that both of my parents have died (and also my very significant stepmother who died in 2011). It’s an odd feeling to no longer have a parent around, even at a distance. Parents–whether good, bad, or indifferent or any combination of the three (or any other combination to add) are our “anchors” in life. If it were not for them, we would not exist.

In a January 19, 2018 article in the LA Times titled, What the death of a parent can teach us, if we’re willing to learn,” by Alene Dawson, freelance writer and journalist, and LA Times contributor, she writes:

“We tend to think of ourselves as ‘children’ until we lose our parents. It is only then that we are on the front line of mortality,” said Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the bookDeath of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.” “This gives us a very different perspective on our own lifespans and where we fit in terms of generations.”

David Kesslerfounder of grief.com and co-author with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the influential bookOn Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” said many adults — regardless of age — struggle with feeling like an orphan after a parent dies. “I try to remind them that you still stay connected with that person even in death.”

An era gone by

“Our parents are our first relationship… So when a parent dies, it is your anchor being taken away,” Kessler said. Los Angeles resident Abbe Andersen took care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and when she died at 88, Andersen felt her point of life reference had died, too. “It’s a lost feeling,” she said. But it also allowed her to rethink and reshift personal priorities: “What’s important are your connections… dear friends and family.”

Rituals can help

“Having a place that reminds the child of the parent and going to that place to talk things through with the parent can be very comforting,” Umberson said. Planting a tree, or assembling a special photo album or scrapbook can also help.

Grieving what never was

Some are perplexed to find themselves mourning a parent with whom they’ve had a bad relationship. “We believe we only grieve people we love but that actually isn’t true,” Kessler said. “My definition of grief is a reflection of a connection we have lost… Sometimes we have to grieve for what never was, for that ideal parent we never had.”

For some, a new freedom

Jeanne Safer, author ofDeath Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – for the Better— the book cover is a birdcage with an open door — says that after a parent dies, many people feel more free to marry outside their religion or ethnicity, “people come out [as gay], people leave religion, people come to religion, people get divorces – all kinds of things – it’s fascinating.” And it’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Kessler pointed to an example of a client who was grieving his abusive father’s death. But as time passed, the man felt a safety in the world he hadn’t felt before. “We think a parent ideally will enrich us but some people do have parents that diminish them,” Kessler said.

Take a psychological inventory

Safer advised taking some time to think about your parent’s legacy, and your own: “Four questions to ask yourself about your parent’s character are: ‘What did I get from my parent that I want to keep? What do I regret not getting? What did I get that I want to discard? What did I need that my parent couldn’t provide?’

“What you didn’t get but needed, go out and get from other people or yourself,” Safer added.

The first two weeks… then a lifetime

When you lose your parent as an adult, there’s often much to do, such as contacting relatives, planning the memorial and funeral and sorting through possessions. “The reality is you are swept up in the busy-ness and then in about three months to a year it really hits… And it’s usually about that time where their support has moved on,” Kessler said. Then family traditions change as first holidays and birthdays without them pass. “The second year is the year we realize they’re never coming back, we’re never seeing them again–this is us now.”

Reach out for support

“Time does not heal all wounds but the pain of loss does lessen with time. My main advice is to not expect yourself to quickly recover and to not feel there is anything abnormal about intense feelings of grief,” Umberson said, adding that it can be comforting spending time with others who’ve gone through a similar loss, whether it’s friends or strangers in a support group. “Seeking this kind of contact is a concrete thing people can do to help them move forward.”

Kessler says sharing your grief online can also help. “Posting a photo of your mother on the anniversary of her death can connect you with friends and family who are also grieving. You can also find a closed Facebook group where people unite on the type of grief they have,” Kessler said. “We have a primal need for our grief to be witnessed. Our psyche doesn’t want us to be an island of grief. We need each other and grief is a universal connector.”

To read this article in Spanish, click here. (Quote source here.)

In another article titled When a Parent Dies,” by Le Anne Schreiber on Oprah.com, she writes:

It’s always a shock. But grieving grown-up children may be surprised to find that despite the sorrow, the life changes following loss are often positive….

…What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn’t matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn’t even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.

Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child’s loss of a parent.

Miriam Moss, one of the few researchers who have studied the impact of parental death, suspects that ageism is largely responsible for this neglect. “Old people are not valued in this culture,” says Moss, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. “The loss of an elderly parent is not seen as particularly important.” What reinforces that ageism, Moss adds, is the fact that “it’s normative, expected. The attitude is, Oh well, she was old. How old was she? Seventy-eight? Oh, I’m sorry. What else is new?”

Disenfranchised grief is the term for mourning whose death is not socially recognized, and it has a silencing effect on the griever. It also, says Miriam Moss, has distorted and trivialized our understanding of the loss of a parent. “A parent’s death,” she says, “has a very strong impact, and it’s not just emotional. The whole meaning of who you are is very much attached to this person.”

Most of Moss’s research has looked at the effect of parental loss within the first six months to a year after the death, when grief is keenest. But it is often in the following years, when a new emotional equilibrium has been achieved, that many people register the deeper, more lasting consequences of being motherless or fatherless. And about these unfolding long-term changes, there is virtually no professional research. There is, however, a growing body of anecdotal evidence, written and oral, arising from Baby Boomers, myself included, who have never been prone to silence about anything on their collective mind.

With the goal of further opening up this subject, I conducted interviews with a small sample of women, ages 46 to 66, about how their lives had been affected by the death of a parent. Although the stories they told, and the parent-child relationships they described, were highly individual, a remarkable consistency began to emerge. Without exception these women described profound changes, both internal and external, which they directly attributed to their parents’ deaths. Most surprisingly, they characterized the changes as positive. That, in fact, is why they seldom, if ever, had talked in detail about their reactions to becoming motherless or fatherless. They were afraid that speaking of the good that had followed would be unseemly, disrespectful, too easily misunderstood as being glad that a parent had died. And that indeed would be a misunderstanding.

“I wish my mother could see me now” was a commonly expressed sentiment—paired with the complex irony that “if she could see me, I wouldn’t be anything like I now am.” (Quote source and the rest of the lengthy article is available at this link.)

David wrote in Psalm 68:5-6 that God is A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, and he leads out the prisoners with singing”…. For those who believe in God, he is the source of the greatest strength and comfort and guidance in hard times and times of grief for anyone who genuinely seeks Him. He is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He makes crooked paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and Psalm 34:18 states, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And he is always there when no one else is around (see Hebrews 13:5-6).

I’ll end this post with these words from Father to the Fatherless: A Call to Worship from Psalm 68

This is God . . .

Father to the fatherless . . .

Defender of the desolate . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (Live) by Il Divo:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit–family photo
Photo #3 credit here
Photo #4 credit here