The Night My Father Died: Reacting to Grief During the Holidays

The Night My Father Died

I remember the night my father died. It was New Year’s Eve in 1977. My husband and I had just brought our young family home about 10 o’clock after celebrating the New Year with friends. I was tucking the children in bed when the phone rang, and the late-night ring seemed urgent. My brother in Michigan was calling to say our father had died just a few minutes earlier, two minutes after midnight Michigan time. I still remember where I was standing when I took that call. I still remember my husband hugging me as I responded to my brother’s call distant states away.

My parents had divorced when I was six years old. With mutual agreement between my parents, our father visited my three siblings and me weekly, for all family holidays, and for special celebrations of birthdays and graduations. He continued to provide financial support throughout our growing years. Ours was a very congenial and close divorced family, far different from most of the divorces I hear about. I definitely felt the loss of my father because he wasn’t with us on a daily basis. But we were close and I loved him.

During that poignant Christmas season — in those days long before FaceTime — our little Salt Lake family talked and sang carols on a cassette tape and sent it as a Christmas greeting to my hospitalized father. Though my brother played these greetings for Dad, he wasn’t his usual responsive self but simply smiled. I wonder what went through my father’s mind that last Christmas. I wonder if he remembered all the magical Christmas mornings he came to spend with us — together with us though divorced from our mother.

Just a few years before his death, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He’d been a very active and highly successful grocer, and I remember being struck by his diminished presence after not seeing him for a year.

My husband-to-be and I had just arrived home from overseas to be married. In fact, considering his health, Dad said my brother may have to walk me down the aisle for our upcoming wedding. Happily Dad did escort me down the aisle, which created a memory I hold dear in my heart. He lived with Parkinson’s for the next four years. He visited us in Salt Lake City and we could see the physical changes in his body and how Parkinson’s manifested itself in his life. After returning home he fell when he was out for his daily walk, broke his hip, and was hospitalized. Pneumonia was the final condition that took his life.

Our father’s funeral was just four days after his death. In our faith tradition, we celebrated Mass to commend our father to God and bless his body as we buried him on a windy, sub-zero Midwestern January day. A few of the stories that were related to us about our father at his funeral will remain forever vivid in my mind.

  • My father took food weekly to a care center for poor people. No one knew of his multi-year, continuous generosity until the administrators of the center told us at his funeral.
  • A former stock boy who worked for my father during his high school and college years told us about our father lending him his Cadillac to take his girl to the senior prom when the boy was just a high school senior. He said he couldn’t believe my father would trust him with his car. Then the man laughed and said that the sparkles on his girlfriend’s gown left sparkles on the seat of my dad’s car. The next morning my father went to work with sparkles all over his dark trousers only to be teased by his employees.
  • Fellow independent grocers told of my father’s writing for one of their publications. Dad’s essays conveyed his pride in each of his children and their accomplishments. We didn’t know of his writing or his pride until we heard this story.
  • My siblings and I recalled how our Dad would send an unexpected check with a personal note for no other reason than he wanted us to know he loved us.

I often wonder how others react to the death of a loved one during the holidays, if it stays with us more than deaths that occur other times of the year. Because holidays are meant to be happy and bright, the sadness of death can bring the opposite response.

As the years have passed and I remember my father each holiday, his death at this time seems to have a reverence and a message for me: May I live my life as he lived his in acts of kindness unknown to others, in working hard, and loving our family! And, I might add, my siblings and I occasionally say we miss those surprise checks. But like our father, we send them to our own children from time to time — we try to follow Dad’s example.