John and Sarah Wilson and their kids, Lisa and Eddie, felt lucky to live a multi-generational family. Grandma Wilma had been living with them since she had her mild stroke 15 years ago. When they cleaned out the old family home, she brought with her only her most special items, photos and memorabilia, including the china her mother had left her and the antique glass perfume bottle that Grandpa had given her on their first date.
Wilma was easy to be with. She helped in the kitchen, especially with her famous recipes for baked ham and Christmas chocolate chip cookies. Her dog Sammy was 14 but still playful and slept with her. She hosted her ladies bridge club once a week in the dining room and they all doted on the kids. She often talked about how grateful she was for her long, happy life, and that she was preparing for it to ‘wrap up.’ She told her family more than once that she wasn’t afraid to die; she’d be with the love of her life again.
IT CAN BE HARD WHEN THERE’S NO TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
One morning Wilma didn’t wake up. Her daughter found her and sat with her for a little while before telling the rest of the family. Everyone came up to say goodbye. Lisa was a little reluctant but being with her family made it easier, and she held Wilma’s hand and told her she loved her.
Without Wilma, the coming holidays looked bleak. Sarah was emotional much of the time and found herself isolating. Eddie and Lisa spent time crying with their parents talking about how much they missed Grandma, but they also had activities at school and stayed involved with their friends. John missed Wilma as much as Sarah did, but set about taking care of Wilma’s estate and belongings. They wisely decided not to give anything away right away.
Wilma’s memorial service was simple and attended by 60 people that she had grown up with, raised her family with, and had an active senior center life with. People brought old photos, told stories about her, cried and laughed, and all of her favorite foods made it onto the table.
DECIDING HOW TO GET THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS CAN SEEM IMPOSSIBLE AT FIRST
As Thanksgiving approached, everyone was confused about what to do – they knew they couldn’t act as if nothing had happened, but they didn’t want to forego the holidays altogether. They put their heads together to decide what was the most meaningful for them. Their neighbors, who had spent Thanksgiving with them for decades, asked if they could make dinner for everyone at their house. They put a candle on the dinner table for all of the people they loved who weren’t there anymore and they told stories that made them laugh and cry together.
Christmas seemed overwhelming but they also found compromises that worked. They told friends and family that they weren’t going to be doing much shopping this year, but gave everyone gift cards. Instead of handwriting all of their Christmas cards right away, they waited to respond to each card they received with a short message and a copy of the memorial service program. They decided to give Wilma’s antique perfume bottle to her best friend, who had known Wilma since they were teenagers.
On Christmas, out-of-town family came to stay. They ate Grandma’s baked ham on her china and again lit the candle on the table to remember her and Grandpa and others who had died. Lisa read a poem she had written. And after dinner, they remembered Wilma’s sense of humor. She had left frozen dough for her famous chocolate chip cookies in the freezer with a note telling them all she loved them and to make sure they shared.
This sounds like a perfect Christmas for a grieving family. In the middle of careful planning, there was a lot of crying and wondering why she had to die at all. There was confusion and exhaustion. Lisa was short-tempered, John was distracted, and sometimes there was contention because people were grieving differently. But they also made it through as a team and created some good memories.
Remember that you all have choices about how to negotiate your way through any time of year that you feel expectations about how you should feel or behave. Take precious care of yourselves. – Kim Mooney, Certified Thanatologist
Practically Dying Resources and Support For Grieving Through The Holidays…and After
Everyone has a holiday story about grief. What’s yours? For tools and resources for surviving grief through the holidays be sure to review the offerings in Practically Dying’s shop…and be gentle with yourself.