Life Changes in an Instant: When We Are Faced With the Possibility of Losing a Loved One During the Holidays

The first day of Autumn has come and gone. Years of experience tells me that it is a downhill slide into the holiday season. The time of hustle and bustle has arrived.
The streets, malls and restaurants will all be filled to capacity. It is the season of memories and family traditions and for some, a season of loss.

This is the time of year when I long for my childhood. The holidays were easy and carefree back then. My biggest concern was whether or not Santa Claus would remember exactly which doll or bicycle I wanted. I knew I would be with my family for every single holiday.
Adulthood can take away much of the innocence and joy of the season. Family dynamics enter the picture and all of a sudden time with family has to be scheduled carefully as not to hurt feelings. There are also work schedules to be considered that remove the freedom of travel or long visits out of state. What used to be an exciting time of year becomes the season of scheduling nightmares.

For many years my tradition has been to spend Thanksgiving with my “Granny” and Christmas with my mom, Step-dad, aunt, cousins and step-family in Nevada.
This worked well up until a few years ago when my work schedule and the cost of boarding two dogs interfered with Christmas travel plans. We again have had to make scheduling adjustments. Christmas is now celebrated earlier in December and typically with just my mom and Step-dad. Fortunately, I have wonderful friends who include me in their holiday traditions so I am not alone at Christmas.

This year it is my Thanksgiving plans that will look much different. My grandmother has lived at The Wellington, an assisted living community, for the last thirteen years. She has lived independently in her own apartment, taken care of herself and walked with only the aide of a cane. We have enjoyed many delicious Thanksgiving meals at The Wellington sitting with the same group of ladies and their families each year. It has become our tradition.

On September 19, 2012, I received the type of call I have always been dreading. My grandmother had fallen in her bathroom and was being taken by ambulance to Mission Hospital. The four hours in the emergency room were an emotional roller coaster. I have never seen my grandmother sick and now I was hearing her yell out in pain. First I was told she would need surgery for a hip fracture. You can imagine how frightening the thought of a ninety-eight year old, ninety-four pound woman undergoing surgery was to me.

Once given the “good” news that she had pelvic fractures that would not require surgery, I thought this would not be too bad. The next day they got her up and sitting in a chair and she was nicknamed “Wonder Woman” by the physical therapy team. It runs in my grandmother’s family to bounce back from illness or injury so my mindset was extremely positive. I thought after a few weeks in The Covington’s Rehabilitation Facility she would be ready to return to her apartment with a caregiver.

I’ve spent countless hours with my “Granny” over the last two weeks since her fall. It is horrifying to see how much a traumatic fall can change an elderly individual. I have seen her in a heightened state of confusion. I have seen her angry. I have seen a more loving side towards me than I have in years. I have seen her grow very tired.  I never know what I am going to walk in and find.

And so I enter this holiday season with much bigger concerns than scheduling. I am prepared for whatever God has planned for my grandmother.
I trust Him with her healing and will make the necessary arrangements for the full-time caregivers she will now be unable to live without.
Though it brings tears just writing it, I trust Him if his decision is to take her home to heaven.  It is selfish of me to want to hold on to her longer if she can live out eternity with her mind and body restored.

Many of my dearest friends have lost loved ones around the holidays and I know that these feelings of pain and sentimentality are by no means unique to my situation.

Perhaps you’ve walked in these shoes, if you have you can probably relate to the list below.

These are just a few of the emotions that have hit me at any given moment over the last couple of weeks.

FEAR– This fear is mostly of the unknown.  Will Granny get to go back to her apartment? What will her quality of life be?

ANGER– I have had days where anger comes out towards my father for choosing to take his life when I was a child.  These decisions pertaining to my grandmother should be ours to share.

LOSS OF IDENTITY– I have cared for my grandmother since I was old enough to drive.  She has been such a major part of my life during good times and bad.  I thought I would be relieved when this day came, but it is quite the opposite.

GUILT– Why didn’t I spend this much time with her before she was hurt?  All she wanted was time and I was busy with work and living my life.

SADNESS– That she is only able to tell me how much she loves me through the staff.  I hear how much she brags about me when I am not there.  She tells the nurses how much I love her but these are not conversations that she will have with me directly.

As I mentioned in my post on Depression, I am not seeking sympathy by sharing my life experiences.  I know many people have gone through or are currently going through what I am.  My goal is to create a forum where we can share our stories and support others.

Have you lost an important family member during the holiday season?

How did that loss change your holiday traditions?

How do you continue to honor that person each year?

Molly Keating
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.

30 Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    Lori,

    This is a tough one for me to respond to. As Molly wrote earlier, my father-in-law died Thanksgiving eve in 1986. He was just 56 years old. The call came through at about 2:00 AM and we were living at the mortuary at the time. It was common to receive calls at any hour notifying us of a death, but this call came in on our private line. My wife answered the phone and it was one of her sisters calling but she wanted to talk to me. Frankly I was a little annoyed that she would not talk to Karen directly, yet I took the call. Shock doesn’t even begin to describe the psychosomatic reactions that followed. After I hung up the phone I told Karen. I recall a few minutes later sitting on the bathroom floor reeling from the news and being very nauseated. I was surprised by the holistic reaction my being was undergoing. Just a few minutes earlier I was asleep and feeling just fine.

    We collected our selves as best we could, left Molly who was 11 months old at home with my parents who happened to be spending the night. We decided to notify my youngest sister-in-law in person and not over the phone since she was living alone. More trauma was realized with her. We proceeded to make the drive we had actually planned to make later that day. The expectation of gathering at my in-laws home with family and great food had been spastically transformed into the necessity for me to make funeral arrangements with my newly widowed mother-in-law around what should have been a table of celebration. The double edged sword of being an embalmer director when a death occurs in your family was now being revealed to me.

    Just a few weeks before my father-in-law’s death, my in-laws had come to visit and having just finished a new casket selection room that was accessed through the entry way into our apartment, we went in and showed them the display. My father-in-law commented on how much he liked a particular light blue metal casket that he saw. It was, in fact, the casket that he would be viewed, honored and laid to rest in.

    After making the arrangements at their home, we took the long drive back to the mortuary apartment. On the way I was overcome by the realization that so many expectations of visits, vacations, road trips, air shows and just life with my father-in-law would never happen. Arriving home I went immediately to the care center to see him. My boss had done the legwork that day of picking him up from the hospital and embalming him. It was a surreal, but familiar place. It is where I worked and were I had already embalmed and cared for so many others, some of whom I knew during their lives.

    Fast forward twenty years and to my father’s death on December 23, 2006. He had been failing in recent months but remained ambulatory up until the day before his death. He did not want others to have to do the kind of care for him that is so often needed as the body fails. In one instance, my adopted brother from the Palau Islands came to be with us. He and I together, helped my father to the bathroom while the ladies in the family had a day away. As children, you could never imagine that life could possibly lead you to such a moment. There was a sense though that this was right. Two sons caring for their father in such an intimate way. It was right.

    So, Christmas was approaching and it seemed likely that dad would not make it to that day. My sisters came from out of town to care for and comfort both my mom and dad. My mom’s mom, my grandmother had died just three months earlier and my step-father-in-law, just three months before her. It seemed to be an unending season of death and final goodbyes. My father loved Christmas. We worked YMCA Christmas tree lots every year as I was growing up and there were a myriad of memories surrounding the season and my father. On December 22nd we gathered for an early Christmas eve at my parent’s home. My father was in a hospital bed in the living room and by then was not responsive to us. We chose to have Christmas eve in these unusual circumstances because there was a sense that there would be no other opportunity. We gathered as family and shared memories in his presence. Though he could not respond we felt certain that he was participating. Some that only my mom knew of because they were before out time. It was the richest Christmas eve of my life and was about to become one of the hardest times ever for me.

    We said good night and drove the few miles home somber and resigned that his death was close. We weren’t home 45 minutes when my sister called. After we left my mother and sisters readied for bed, kissed a caressed him and said goodnight going to their beds. Within moments they heard his breathing change and when they came to his bedside he was gone. We drove back to the house and as I went in a approached him, it was clear that he had moved out and left his body behind. That precious vessel that carried him through life now had only one final purpose. His body became the focal point, the symbol of a man’s life. That which we gaze upon with fondness. The hands and strong arms that held me on many occasions and carried me half asleep to bed delivering me gently and lovingly there to peaceful sleep. The adventurer, teacher and lover of people. That was the man who used to live there.

    As I had now done with three other family members, I followed him to the mortuary to do what I know how to do. To care for him in a way that only I can. I began the bathing and embalming process at about 1:00 AM. It was peaceful, dark and quiet. As I performed the semi-surgical and artful process that venerates the body that served my father throughout his life, the memories continued to flood my mind. I arrived at home Christmas eve at about 5:00 AM as tired and as sad as I have ever been.

    Later that day my mother and my sisters and I all drove down to the beach together. It was a mild sunny day that seemed unaware of that fact that my father had died. The world was different but normal. We went to the ocean because so much of our lives have been spent on the water sailing. We could see Catalina island where so many hours had been spent enjoying the world the way God made it. It was good to smell the salt air, fell the sand in your feet and in that way honor the memory of the man who had the greatest influence on my life.

    This comment is far too long I know and you probably have the right to charge me for the therapy session it has been writing it. What I know on this side of my life is that we cannot escape these losses. I will not even pray you be spared of the pain of it. It is in the pain that we grow the most.

    I will pray that you do this well and fully, that you dive into the grieving completely. You and I both know you have already begun the journey by anticipating what will inevitably come and now seems closer than you would like. The 23rd Psalm refers to the valley of the shadow of death and though I walk through it, He is with me. He doesn’t help you escape it, He is with you through it.

    Christmas still holds wonderful memories and great expectations of time spent with family and friends. My father’s death only enhanced it’s meaning.

    Blessings to you through this season,

    Jeff

    • Lori says:

      Jeff,

      I know what you have written here was as therapeutic for you as writing this post was for me.
      When we see others going through the process of losing a family member it brings back all of the emotions from the losses that are still very close to the surface for us.
      I am so thankful that you showed up to the emergency room when I felt so scared and very alone. You were able to decipher what the doctor said when I was basically hysterical.
      I also appreciate your attempt to be the receptionist (cough, cough) when I had to leave that Saturday to get her transferred to The Covington.
      Again I will say it, I work for the most caring bosses anywhere. You have made one of the hardest times of my life much easier because I know I could call on anyone in that building at any time and you would be there for me. That is not work, that is home. Thank you for letting me work for you.
      Blessings to you and many thanks for all the prayers,
      Lori

  2. Kari Leslie says:

    Lori,
    Thank you for sharing a glimpse of your Granny with us. My mom’s mother was my Nana. I spent more time with her the first 10 years of my life than another other family members. She was mine and I was hers. In my childish mind, the sun rose and set on her. Even as I grew older and circumstances changed, whenever I drove away from her, I cried. I was married and the mother of three when my Nana died. You would’ve thought I was that ten year old girl again. I never realized how much losing her would impact my life. Even now, all these years later, the tears come. I miss her sooooo much. She died alone in her home in Hemet. She went to the Riverside Coroner. My life changed forever that day.
    I didn’t get the chance to spend time with her, to say I love you one more time, or color her hair, help her clean up the house, or take Shawn Burger Boy for a walk. Her life, our life together just ended. Every day since has been a step toward healing from that loss.
    Take advantage of every possible second to warm your soul with your Granny.
    Maybe even record her voice!! I wish I would have thought to do that!!
    XOXO
    Kari

    • Lori says:

      Kari,
      You have shared stories of your Nana with me many times and I know what a special place she held in your heart. My mom’s mom, “Gramma” was a fixture in my life. When we lost her in 1987 it was devastating. I cried every single night when I went to bed. I saw her in dreams. I still do occasionally.
      She was truly my second mom. She took care of me while my mom worked.
      It is does not matter how old we get losing the special members of our family we grew up with hurts. That hurt runs deep and this time of year is just another reminder they will not be with us.
      I do have some videos of my Grandma. I appreciate you suggestion and will take some more.
      xoxo
      Lori

  3. Tom says:

    interesting

    • Lori says:

      Tom,
      You are a man of few words, but you have really been there for me too. We joke about our “30 second check ins” and I like your great sense of humor. A couple of weekends ago you called in to see what you were scheduled on for Monday. You asked about my Grandma and I knew you were really interested. You listened to me as I shared what I was going through about how afraid I was of all of this.
      I appreciate you!
      Lori

  4. amy says:

    Lori,
    I commend you for what you are doing for your Granny. It is not an easy task but you have dived in with both feet and are giving it 110%. I know it doesn’t seem like she is grateful or even knows your there half the time but believe me she does. Your constant visits and continued care and concern are what is carrying here right now. She is a very lucky lady to have you. You have dedicated yourself to her and taking care of her. Cherish the time that you have because you never know what tomorrow brings. Make sure you tell her you love her even though she already knows.
    I know that this is not an easy thing for you but I assure you in the end you will look back and be very proud of yourself for what you have accomplished. Stay strong in your faith. I’m here for you my friend.
    Amy

    • Lori says:

      Amy,

      I am grateful to you for giving me the freedom to be with her whenever I feel the need. In a weird way her fall has been a gift to both of us. When she is present, I think she finally gets that I do love her. Our relationship has been challenging and sadly it took something drastic for us to realize how much we need each other.
      Thank you for taking care of things at work so I was able to be with her 110% for the first couple of weeks. It is so much easier going through this with the support of my work family.
      Thank you for everything.
      Lori

  5. Betty F says:

    Lori, I have seen your strengths and your weaknesses and you always come through with a better understanding of why things happen to you. Your insight is amazing in how your live your life. Granny has had a wonderful long life and you made her days easier because of your care and caring love of her. She loves you so very much and appreciates you more than she will every share with you.
    You are a wonderful granddaughter. God will walk with you through the valley and bring you to the other side when the time comes.
    I love you and count you as a big part of my life and family
    Betty F.

    • Lori says:

      Betty,

      Thank you so much for being so wonderful to me!
      You have listened to the ups and downs of my relationship with Granny. When she and I would go through our periods of not speaking, you were always concerned. You never nagged, but I knew you were worried that something would happen and I would carry the guilt.
      Because of you I was able to enjoy my time away listening to Beth Moore teach this past weekend. You went and looked in on Granny so I would not have to stress about her being alone.
      That is more than a friend, that is family.
      I Love You So Much!!!
      Lori

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