I don’t mean for this to be a sad or depressing post. Neither of those feelings are on my mind as I write this, while I anticipate the family waking up to open gifts and do all the Christmas-y things that many of us do on this day. But underneath the Christmas cheer, the excitement of food and gifts, is a feeling of sadness. A few weeks ago, my grandfather passed away at the ripe old age of 96. We were called to make a quality of life decision back in October, but he stayed with us twice as long as the doctor predicted.
My Grandpa lived in a nursing home the last years of his life and his mind and body had been ravaged from Alzheimer’s – a slow, cruel, thief that slowly steals everything that makes your loved one who they are, beginning with their memories and with finality, their body. This wasn’t our family’s only loss this year. One week before we got the call from my Grandpa’s doctor, in the last week of September, my other grandfather passed away in his sleep. This past fall has been a difficult one for my family, to say the least.
The holidays, in general, have been difficult for my family. My two Grandmothers also passed away during the holiday season. When I was 8 years old, both sets of grandparents lived with us. It was the night after Christmas that year and I said goodnight to my Grandma (my dad’s mom), making my way to the little tatami mat next to my parent’s bed as my room had been relegated to visiting family members. I was awakened in the early morning hours, my grandfather banging on my parents’ bedroom door saying that my Grandma was gone. I remember thinking, “where did she go?” and then watching as the paramedics wheeled her out of the bedroom she shared with my grandpa.
Then ten years later, on December 23rd, my mom got a phone call from her father saying that my Grandma (her mother) had a stroke. After a month in the hospital, they made another quality of life decision and she was gone.
In the last 30+ years, every Christmas brings with it the expected gratitude and holiday cheer, but always tinged with sorrow and a bit of fear. This year, of course, each emotion is sharper, more pronounced, more poignant as we go through the grief process, each of us dealing in our own ways.
Our process began before this October, before we said our goodbyes, bought a burial outfit and made arrangements with the mortuary. The last few months have been an emotional and stressful time, but with Alzheimer’s Disease, the goodbye process begins years before as you watch your loved one slowly disappear, forgetting first who you are and then eventually who they are. But after talking to the doctor, we knew that the end was imminent.
Every time the phone rang in the last few months, I expected “the call.” At Thanksgiving, I visited again and again, said goodbye. “The call” came two days later at 5 am. I was sad, but I figured the grief was over by that point, after all, by that morning on November 30th, 2016, I’d been saying goodbye to Grandpa for the better part of three years when he’d begun to gaze unrecognizing at me, until he was a shell of the man I knew and loved. I had come to accept in the last few years that soon, my grandfather would be in a better place and his mind and body would be whole again. But as I said, death and grief are funny. Grief sneaks up on you at the most random times. Like in the middle of the clothing section at Target. Or while wrapping Christmas presents. Or baking cookies when a random, obscure memory sucker punches you and you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.
Today, we laugh and eat and open gifts. Tomorrow, we will inter Grandpa and celebrate his life.
Christmas without Grandpa means no visit to the nursing home this year, but a visit to the cemetery instead; it means no more brightly wrapped pajamas and slippers, labeled with Grandpa’s name and room number; it means no more sneaking him a piece of candy when his nurses aren’t looking. Christmas is different, but we are still here, together, less one member of our family, but together still. There’s more sadness this year, of course, but in the midst of the sorrow, there is healing, there is love and there is even joy as we remember Grandpa and create new memories for our family.
If you are also dealing with the loss of a loved one during the holidays or grieving, know that you aren’t alone, allow yourself the range of emotions that you’re experiencing, and know that over time, the grief you feel now will soften over time. Merry Christmas.