Our First Christmas – learning about loss

The holidays, in my family, are intense. There’s so much all at once. My partner’s birthday, Hannukah, Christmas, and my daughter’s birthday all fall within the same month. It’s hectic. It’s always been hectic. But in a special way, with lots of laughs, and I look forward to it every year. At the same time, there’s always a touch of sadness too.

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Our first winter as a family, I was heavily pregnant. We were living in this tiny one bedroom apartment, and we were very young, with limited family support. We were broke. We weren’t able to buy each other gifts, we couldn’t afford to take the funds away from the baby due to arrive any minute. I remember making my partner an Advent calendar from scratch. Making tiny paper pockets and filling them with dollar store candies and little slips of paper with IOUs good for one free hug. It was the best I could do.

There was one positive presence through all of it. My father in law. He was extremely excited to meet his granddaughter, and had been in touch regularly. We were separated by distance, us settled in Canada and he in New York. But he still sent us Hannukah gifts in the mail that year. He called us that Hannukah, and we spoke for about an hour. I had been so frightened that my partner’s family would hate me. This young girl showing up, pregnant, out of the blue. But he made me feel like part of the family. We talked about how he’d come up and stay when the baby came. At the time I thought I might need a cesarean (my daughter was stubbornly breech) and he suggested an earlier arrival and longer stay to help me recover from surgery. It felt great, having that help available.

Hannukah came to a close. My father in law came down with a case of strep throat. We didn’t think anything of it. He was an incredibly strong and healthy man. Only in his 50’s, a vegetarian. We talked about how we hoped it would clear up before the baby came. A few days passed, and we received a phone call from New York. He was in the hospital. Strep throat had turned into pneumonia. He didn’t want us to worry, with the baby coming any day now. We were concerned, and not holding our breath for him to make it to the birth, but once again we felt it was nothing to worry about.

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Our first Christmas day as a family, the phone rang again. He was gone. It took one week. From a touch of a cough, to pneumonia, to sepsis and multi system organ failure. He hadn’t wanted us to endure the extra stress, and asked his partner not to call as he deteriorated further. It was like we blinked and he was gone. My partner lost his father. My daughter lost her grandfather just two weeks before her birth. There was an incredible sense of shock. What do we do now?

It feels wrong. Not being able to do anything. When someone dies, particularly someone in a different city, it feels like there must be something to do. Some way to help. It feels impossible that they’re really gone forever and nothing you can do will change it. My father in law was a jew who became a Buddhist. There would be no shivah, no funeral. There was no where to go and no arrangements to make. I was too pregnant to fly. So we sat at home, knowing my partner’s uncle and step mother were out there somewhere scattering his father’s ashes into the wind. The man planning to come meet my baby a week prior was suddenly, and literally, dust in the wind.

It was still Christmas. We had no idea what to do. My first reaction was to call my family and tell them we couldn’t come to Christmas dinner. It didn’t feel right. But it didn’t feel right to just sit there, in our tiny apartment, feeling the weight of a loss while the rest of the world kept on turning. Eventually we strapped on our coats and walked to a blissfully distracting Christmas party.

The baby came two weeks later. The impact of my partner’s loss grew. How do you become a father without a father? We changed her middle name at the last minute, to a feminized version of his name. It felt like the least we could do.

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Outside my daughter’s bedroom door hangs the only gift he ever gave her. When I first found out I was pregnant, he flew up and presented me with beautiful leather and steel Tibetan prayer bells. They hang there, and I remind her how much he loved her. What a beautiful gift it was for him to learn the love a grandparent feels for their grandchild before he passed. Someday I’ll tell my son how much his grandfather would have loved him. More and more Christmases pass, with more and more children to celebrate with. It’s a beautiful time in our household. But every year, a tiny realization appears in the back of my mind like a tiny spark. Someone is missing.

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