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SPIRIT MATTERS: Holidays without Dad

Six years ago this past Thursday, our family gathered at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.

My dad had been deteriorating significantly in the previous months, and had given way to sleeping most of the time, but we managed to get him up to sit at the table with us as we ate.

Anyone who knew my dad, knew how much he loved to eat. There was hardly a food around that he didn’t take delight in, and usually at Thanksgiving, or any other holiday for that matter, he was front and center in the line to eat first, having elbowed his way through the crowd of people with no mercy. And always eliciting laughter and jokes from the rest of the family as he did so.

But not this Thanksgiving.

I sat at the kitchen table, across from Dad and watched him as he struggled to force down food. Mom had given him a slice of cherry pie and he didn’t want anything to do with it. My brothers and sisters and I awkwardly tried to pretend everything was normal.

But he was no longer interested in eating. Mom had already been supplementing his diet with Ensure, and blending smoothies to try to boost his energy.

But this was Thanksgiving, and this was not my dad in front of me.

It might have been a week or two before that, while I was working for The Times, I decided to do a story on grieving during the holidays.

I was feeling it, and I wanted to reach out to others whose holidays had become more of something to struggle through then to celebrate, since one or more of their loved ones had died.

I met with Pastor Bill Niebuhr, one of the chaplains at St. Mary’s Hospital in Streator. Pastor Bill and I were acquainted through my work with the paper. I found him very easy to talk to and work with. He was quite down to Earth. All of this made him great at what he did, and a comfort to those with whom he ministered.

We sat at a round table in his office and I asked him questions about the grieving process and how it applied to the holidays, while I tried to hold myself together and maintain my professional demeanor.

As streams of tears quietly rolled down my cheeks.

I apologized, wiped the tears from my eyes, and interspersed the questions with anecdotes about my dad’s failing health, which I had watched in real time as I was living with my parents and helping be a caregiver for him.

Pastor Bill reassured me there was nothing wrong with me.

I was experiencing “anticipatory grief,” he said, where one grieves a loss before it happens.

He noted that it is a common type of grief, even as everyone is unique and grieves in different ways.

The next few weeks only worsened, with Dad occasionally coming out into the living room and sitting on the couch, not saying anything, but needing assistance from Mom and I to get to the bathroom. By this time, we had a walker and wheelchair in the house.

Having a walker and a wheelchair in your house to aid for the care of your once vibrant, happy-go-lucky comedian of a father is in itself enough to make you fall apart.

Dad died on Sunday, Dec. 22, that year, three days before the holiday for which he lived.

Fortunately, our family was able to gather around him in the Intensive Care Unit those last few days and say our goodbyes. He wasn’t able to speak, and by this time, I don’t think he could really see either, but I told him how much I loved him, what a good father he was to all of us, and that it was okay for him to go, as I squeezed his hand.

And he squeezed my hand back.

Christmas that year, obviously, wasn’t the loud, raucous ripping apart of wrapping paper and trading of good-natured barbs as it had been in years past. I remember going to my grandma’s house where everyone was gathered quietly for the holiday. My cousin Tricia, who is one of my best friends, greeted me and gave me a gentle hug, as did everyone else in taking their turn. I made my way to the couch in the living room and sat in a daze.

What was there to say?

In a time like this, after the death of a loved one, the only thing to do is to sit in the holy Silence.

And pray.

Or whatever one feels comfortable doing in the face of such a substantial loss.

We went home early that day.

I thought after Dad died that year three days before Christmas that it would never be fun or joyful again. And to be honest, the following year wasn’t much better than the year he died.

However, in my case – and everyone is different, as Pastor Bill emphasized when I met with him – Dad’s love for the Christmas season lives on in my heart.

I think my love for the season is more profound than ever, and I don’t feel Dad’s absence.

If anything, his presence in the house he grew up in and lived most of his married life in during the holiday season, is bigger than it has ever been.

It is why I decorate for Christmas early in November. This year, I have three trees going in the house, and the guest room/computer room lit up with blue and white lights. Blue lights were his favorite.

I want to make that warm Christmas feeling last as long as possible, but I sympathize with those who don’t.

These days, I think back over the years when Dad sat in a chair pulled into the living room especially for him, surrounded by presents from his wife and children, and sometimes a dog or cat with red ribbons around their necks, with a look of pure joy and excitement on his face.

And I smile.

SPIRIT MATTERSáis a weekly column that examines spirituality in The Times' readership area. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada at jzblue33@yahoo.com to share how you engage your spirit in your life and in your community.

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