By Sean Powell, LCSW, Caregiver/Director Social Work and Patient and Family Services
My dad was a 50-year colon cancer survivor. This is pretty unheard of for someone diagnosed in 1965 at the age of 29 when medical treatments were relatively rudimentary compared to what is available now. The cancer, unfortunately, returned in 2001 when he was 65 and eventually spread to his lungs and liver. For someone who had lived under cancer’s shadow for so long, he never became his diagnosis or identified as a survivor. He was just Warren.
In November 2015 it became clear further treatment was no longer an option and we needed to focus on quality of life. Dad entered hospice, my sister and I became his primary caregivers, and we were able to keep him at home for the next six weeks. These six weeks were filled with a lot of family, friends, food, and reminiscing. It was not without obstacles and issues to deal with, but those paled in comparison to the comfort and dignity we were able to provide. Dad passed away quietly in his sleep early in the morning on December 15, 2015, just a week before Christmas.
After dad left us, I worried if Christmas would always be darkened by his memory. The year before we had our first Christmas without our step-father (who had also passed away due to cancer), which was difficult for our family. We now had a second loss to contend with. I worried that Christmas would go from being my favorite holiday to a trigger of sad memories of what used to be. I had heard other people talk about how they hated the holidays after the significant loss of a loved one.
For me, the day he died was the day I had to make a decision about how I would handle this for the rest of my life. I had written out all my Christmas cards, but I had not yet had a chance to mail them. My dad’s card was in the stack to be mailed, postage stamp affixed. I debated do I mail it, which could be viewed as senseless, or do I throw it away or put it away to keep. I made the decision to mail it. Dad might not be here, but the spirit and intent of this loving gesture still remained. If I stopped holding on to the joy and the love the holidays brought because of the fear of the pain of the loss, I would only be hurting myself and the memory of my dad.
The next year as the holidays approached and the first year without dad came to a close, I did not feel that sadness I worried I would feel. The excitement of the holidays came around as usual, but it was different. Instead of focusing on our normal traditions, we went in a new direction. My step-father had loved the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so we rented a beach house and spent a week there for Thanksgiving. We ate at his favorite restaurant and told funny memories, with frequent imitations of his Michigan accent.
I made a solid choice that I would not recognize the date of my father’s death. There was nothing to be gained by remembering that sad day, so I let it go. Instead, I focused on remembering my father’s spirit as Christmas approached. He loved taking people out to dinner, so I implemented a “Friendsmas” and took my friends to dinner at a local restaurant. At our annual candlelight Christmas Eve dinner, my family told funny stories of my dad and reminisced about Christmases before.
In the past, my sister and I always went over to my dad’s house first to open presents before having dinner with our extended family. We had a tradition of taking a shot of whiskey to help us cope with some of the unusual personalities we would face. My sister and I toasted our dad on Christmas and took that shot of whiskey.
I will not deny that there is not a tinge of sadness thinking about Christmas before and, “What used to be.” But, there is still that excitement of what is to come, seeing family, eating, and what lays under the tree. My dad might not physically be there, but his spirit presents itself at every turn, every laugh, ever memory. And that is what helps keep Christmas my favorite holiday.