“I’ll Have A Blue Christmas Without You”

rainy-83136_1280Christmas is a time when friends and families come together. It is also a time when the absence of family can be more keenly felt.

When I first lost my Dad almost three years ago I remember returning to work feeling lost. I remember arriving at work one morning sitting in my car staring at my office building. It was bitter cold morning in January and I sat in my car for what seemed like forever staring into the horizon. I felt lost and totally alone. I was heartbroken, angry, sad and devastated all at once. I was unable to control my emotions and I did not like it one bit. I felt as if my entire body was being weighed down by enormous bricks and I was sinking fast.

I spent much of my first year of grief in a fog, often getting sucked into tidal waves of sadness. Many times, I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a black hole with one foot in and the other slowly slipping away.

The entire holiday season has amplified my grief, bringing me back to that cold January morning. The twinkling lights, festive songs and the constant pressure to be happy often knocks me off my feet. I often find myself daydreaming throughout the season. I watch my friends with their fathers and I think about how much my Dad is missing, and how much I miss my Dad.

Just yesterday I received an email from Macy’s with incredible bargains for Dad this Christmas, and I began to wonder do they have a bargain for the deceased Dad? If my Dad was alive would I be purchasing him yet another pair of pajamas, or an ugly sweater for him to return? I like to think my Dad is watching from Heaven, and how he’s finally pain free, but somehow, it’s not the same as him being here with us.

I miss my Dad every day, but Christmas is especially difficult. My Dad was the life of the party, he was the loudest, funniest, most loving person in the room. He was filled with joy and now there is a huge hole in our lives.

I am learning that the best way to cope with grief is to talk about the person you have lost. Surround yourself with caring, empathetic individuals. Be prepared for periods of normality, and then, sometimes out of the blue or during special occasions, intense emotions. You will never truly get over your loss but there is great comfort in talking about your loved one and keeping their memory alive.

Christmas has a nostalgic pull for anyone who is grieving. It’s easy to become cocooned this time of year and want to hibernate in your bereavement bunker.  But the person you  lost would want you to carry on.  Be gentle with yourself and take it slowly through the days leading up to Christmas. It may not be the same Merry Christmas it once was, but it can be a new holiday wrapped up in memories of someone very special. Take time to hold family close and remember the ones you lost. That’s exactly what I will be doing this year.

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I Became A Better Person The Day My Father Died

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Photo Credit:  Maxpixel

Do you have a moment in your life when everything came to a screeching halt and life as you knew it changed instantly?  I do.  It was January 17, 2016  in the wee hours of the morning.  I watched my father take his final breath and leave this place we call earth.  This moment has played over and over in my mind.  If I close my eyes tight enough I can still feel his protective grip as we held hands one last time. Regardless of how old I was, or how sick my father became, the strength of my father’s hands symbolized a sense of security, power and protection for me.  I studied his hands that night knowing I would never see them or him again.  I can still feel the agony of my heart shattering as I watched him leave his earthly body and ascend to Heaven.

My Dad was sick for seven long years, the last four years of his life he was housebound barely surviving.  His pain management was a failed attempt by doctors to give him some sort of quality of life.  Many times I would walk into the room to find him screaming in pain, begging God for mercy.  My heart still breaks when I think of this memory and my eyes begin to flood with tears.

For four long years my father was unable to eat a morsel of food or drink an ounce of liquid – he survived on a peg tube inserted in his stomach.  I vividly remember my father’s strong hands trembling in pain, his body becoming weak and frail.  I’m still angry that my father had to suffer endlessly.  There is no reason for anyone to suffer from life changing illnesses, there is no reason for anyone to suffer period.  As I watched my father deteriorate before my eyes, I felt robbed of things that seemed so basic.  Family meals, going out to dinner, and eventually just a simple conversation became too cumbersome for my father.  Life can be so unfair sometimes.  Until a basic human need is ripped away from a loved one and there is nothing you can do to help them it’s difficult to imagine how precious life is, how valuable your health is.  You begin to see how trivial some things are.  The problems you had pre illness now seem laughable and manageable.

I was given front row seats to watch cancer slowly dismantle my father.  In case you didn’t already know this, cancer is the biggest bitch on the planet.  Like a thief in the night cancer slowly stole pieces of my father until he couldn’t even get out of bed and we had to assist him with the most basic tasks.  I remember helping my father use the restroom during the final days of his life.  He cried and apologized to me, he was horrified that his daughter had to help him use the restroom.  I held back tears and told him that’s what adult children are for and I will love him forever.

Three days later our family sat in the hospital waiting for God to take my father home.  Watching someone you adore die is a life changing experience.  Death is not glamorous like a Hollywood movie.  Death is a life changing experience that annihilates your entire life while shattering your heart into a million pieces.  One minute your loved one is there the next they are gone.  Seven years of horrific pain, praying and pleading with God to save your loved one and then just like that they are gone.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the loss of a person of significance.  Despite my father being so ill I simply could not grasp the enormous feeling of loss immediately following my father’s final breath.  I remember immediately thinking, “No wait, come back! Please! I need you Daddy.”  But it was too late my father was gone after a long valiant battle with cancer.

Grief is not linear.  It ebbs and flows.  Grief is messy, complicated and painful.  Regardless of how horrific someone’s illness is when they are alive, once they are gone, they are gone forever.  I cried more in the days following the loss of my father than I have ever cried in my entire life.  Just when I thought my tears had run out I cried some more.  As I began to walk my grief journey I became comfortable with my wide range of emotions and with the emotions of those around me.

My father’s death has made me a better person—more present, empathetic, and committed to others while trying to have a positive impact on those around me.  A year after my father’s death, with the help of the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders I established the Albert J. Ingrassia Fund.  This is my effort to raise awareness for the countless patients living like my father and for the families so they know they are not alone.  My fiancée and I have decided to donate the flowers from our wedding to patients receiving care at the inpatient oncology and hospice unit at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, NJ.  This is our effort to share our unconditional love with others.

My father was an incredible man.  He was kind, loving and larger than life.  He dedicated his life to his family and as a result led a rich life.  These small efforts are my way of keeping my father’s legacy alive.

I don’t think anything can prepare you for the loss of a parent.  Losing my father was a massive blow, he was not just my father, he was my best friend, he was my person.  I was robbed of the opportunity to watch my father grow old, celebrate milestone birthdays, take him to dinner, and have him walk me down the aisle later this month at my wedding.

I will never stop missing my father, he was my first love and my real life superhero.  As I walk my grief journey I have learned the following:

  1. Never miss an opportunity to say “I love you.”
  2. Don’t waste moments. None of this is monotonous, it all matters.
  3. It’s okay to be less than perfect. When you die the important people that matter only talk about the good.
  4. Strength has very little do with muscle and brawn.  Strength has everything to do with our unique ability to conquer the trials and tribulations that life throws in our path.
  5. A father’s legacy changes the world, one daughter at a time.

My father’s story is far from over. I am the beneficiary of an infinite inheritance of virtue, character and fortitude. I am my father’s living breathing legacy and as long as I have breath in me I will continue to tell his story.

What lessons have you learned as you walk your grief journey? Please share in the comments section.

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The Things They Don’t Tell Us About Grief

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Photo Credit:  Pixabay

I am a fatherless daughter.  For seven long years I watched my heroic father suffer and scream in pain.  Cancer stole bits and pieces of my father nonstop for seven tortuous years. Despite the fact that my father was surviving on a peg tube unable to eat or drink orally, enduring endless pain, I begged God not to take him because I simply could not imagine life without my father.  

I watched my parent’s fairy tale marriage evolve into never-ending hospital visits. The flowers that my father would bring home just because became a faded memory.  The love notes my father used to leave around the home for my mother were replaced by his shaky penmanship reminding him to take his never-ending list of medications.  

Our family spent 7 years searching for a cure for my father, begging God for mercy.  And then, just like that my father was gone.  When I lost my father I lost a big part of myself, my identity.  

The days following my father’s death, were spent in my “bereavement bunker”, my safe zone.  When my father took his last breath, I lost my voice.  I could not speak to anyone and just leaving the house was exhausting.   I have a confession, I didn’t wash my hair for the first 5 days following my father’s death, I was just too tired.  I was certain I thrown into my own personal hell the moment my father died.  My pain was gut wrenching and never-ending.

There were moments; there still are moments that I am positive the sounds of my breaking heart are deafening to anyone around me.  

My father just wasn’t my father, he was my friend, my best friend.  I will miss that bond for the rest of my life. See, I didn’t just speak to my father once in a blue moon, we spoke daily, sometimes multiple times a day right up until he took his last breath.  Each day without my father is an adjustment, and as more time passes it is a cruel reminder of the massive void in my life.  I still have moments when I retreat into my bereavement bunker because it feels as if the world cannot handle my grief.

Friendships, even some family relations are not immune to grief.  Despite what you may think, what television leads you to believe, some people will vanish when you need them the most.  Some people will say hurtful things at the most inappropriate times, even going as far as telling a new widow to “get over it”.  Many have no clue what to say or how to act.  Others are extremely uncomfortable around someone drowning in grief.  Some are petrified of how your grief makes them feel.   Some people are harboring their own guilt and resentment and simply cannot handle the depth of your grief.  Grief has a unique way of forcing you to do a friend and family purge, and forcing you to retreat to your bereavement bunker.  

Death is uncomfortable for many.  Death is a reminder of our own mortality and mortality is an uncomfortable thing to think about.

We get uncomfortable being in the presence of a woman who has lost her child, especially if you have your own little ones that you can’t imagine being without for even two seconds.  Or the new widow.  It’s terrifying to think of life without your partner.  Simply put, it’s difficult to know what to say to a person who has experienced a traumatic loss.  

Unfortunately we all experience loss at some point in our lives, it’s inevitable.  

Your grieving friends and family need you now more than ever.  Time will lessen the sting, but for the griever the moment their loved one died they were handed a life sentence without parole.  Grievers wake up each morning and pray that something, someone will give us a glimmer of hope to get through the day.

Reach out and touch your grieving friends in any way you can.  Now is the time to shower them with unconditional love, their hearts are shattered.   I promise you, your grieving friends will never forget the ones that were their light, their glimmer of hope as they sat isolated in their bereavement bunker.  

 

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It’s Your Choice – For Better or Worse Grief Changes Us

 

Death is devastating.  It leaves behind a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams.  All losses are significant.  I consider myself blessed to have had such a strong bond with my father.  The months following my father’s death have left me feeling as if I’m walking around with my heart torn open.  My grief has slowly changed me, sending me on my own pursuit of happiness.

 

I was handed front row seats to watch my father bravely battle cancer for seven long years. The last four years of his life were horrific.  When hospice began coming around I was in full blown denial.  I told everyone hospice was to get him “back on his feet.”  My heart could not accept what my brain already knew.  My father was dying.  I tried to imagine my life without my Dad but I couldn’t.  It was just too painful, too difficult. The days leading up to my father’s death were emotional, agonizing and mentally exhausting.

My father tried his best to prepare our family for life without him.  I spoke to my Dad daily, often multiple times, each conversation ended with, “I love you more.”  I visited weekly, and at each visit we held hands, cried and laughed as he made me promise to stay strong and enjoy life to the fullest.  During one of our final father daughter conversations, my Dad looked me in the eyes and told me, “You will always be my baby, live your life and be kind.  I will always be with you.”

Life without my Dad has been difficult.  It has been emotional.  It has been devastating.  It has also been a series of valuable lessons, all of which have changed me.

Below are 3 valuable lessons from my grief journey:

You Get Your Priorities Straight:
My entire perspective on life has changed, it has matured. All the little annoyances of everyday life, those little things that would have once qualified as “the worst day ever” immediately become irrelevant.  People who are unkind, selfish, lack empathy, none of it matters to me. They are all just minor distractions, detours in my grief journey . My chaotic life has slowed down. I discovered the frivolousness of being in a hurry all the time. I have made an effort to “stop and smell the roses.”   I call my Grandma more often, I spend more time with my Mom on the phone,  I end each conversation with ,“I love you.”

You Love Deeper:
After my Dad died, saying goodbye to someone, to anyone I cared about was painful.  I would carefully watch them fade away into the horizon.  For the first few months I was terrified of losing my mother.  I am learning instead of letting my fear send me into a downward spiral of darkness and overwhelming sadness, to let go of my fear and focus my love on my loved ones.  I send my Mom flowers just because, I send my boyfriend a random “I love you” text, I reach out to friends more frequently, because I know how sacred life is. I have chosen to live each day like it’s my last and to treat each day for the blessing that it is.

You Learn How To Appreciate Life:
I watched my father fight to live.  He was thankful for every moment he was given with his family.  Regardless of how much pain and suffering he endured, he was always kind and grateful.  When my father became gravely ill I deliberately chose to stop anything that would quiet my mind.  Yoga, pilates, meditation were all bad for me, or so I thought.  I didn’t want to think about what was happening to my world.  I wanted noise in my life, I kept myself busy.  Now that my father is gone my favorite thing to do is to stop and enjoy the silence.  Each morning I breathe in the love. I have consciously let go of anything that is toxic and causes anxiety.  I take time each morning to breathe in the love of my Dad and remember the kind, loving soul that he was.

Stop, be still, take all it in.   Life is a precious gift.  

Perhaps our grief can have a positive impact on us.  Together, as we grieve, we are evolving into extraordinary empathetic creatures with true altruistic motivations.  As we travel our grief journey we are supporting each other while we strive to preserve our loved ones legacy.

Grief lasts a lifetime,  but our precious memories will live forever.

 

A Thank You Note to My Father’s Nurses

 

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Photo Credit:  Quotesgram

It was you who gave my dying father exemplary nursing care with stellar kindness and compassion. You touched our hearts and comforted our spirits during the darkest moment of our lives.

You made sure my father was comfortable.

You stayed long after the doctors left that evening.

You honored his dying wishes.

You treated him with respect.

You let him die with dignity.

When we thoughts our hearts were completely broken and we were dying as well, you treated us with compassion and grace.  

That fateful evening we sat in my father’s hospital room for hours holding my father’s hand, crying feeling shattered and hopeless.  You would check in, prop my father’s pillows and check his morphine.  Each time you walked into the room my father would smile and thank you.  With your comforting touch you eased my father’s pain and my mother’s breaking heart.

You offered my family reprieve during the worst moment in our lives.  You were there checking in on us and taking care of us. You probably don’t know this but I think about you often.  Your smile, your compassion, your bravery became our lifeline that evening.  I bet you do not receive enough Thank You’s, and probably are completely unaware of the significant difference you make in the lives of patients and their families.

You now occupy a place in my heart, a place of high honor.  You were my family’s angel of mercy that evening.

Thank you.

 

 

A Grandmother’s Love

It is a magnificent blessing to really get to know your Grandmother throughout your adulthood. I am blessed to have a healthy, accomplished 85 year old Grandmother.  She is the last of my Grandparents and I value her wisdom, love and friendship.

I have always known the true value of family; now with my father gone I’m feeling it in my soul.

Grandma, Dad always valued his relationship with you. He said you never made him feel like an in law – he felt like a son.  This is something he told me up until days before his death.

As my father’s health deteriorated, I began to lean on you for guidance. During the darkest moments of my life you have offered encouragement, advice and honestly.

As I reflect on my father’s illness and my mother’s angelic caregiving abilities, I am realizing these qualities were inherited from you. I watched my mother transform into a hero as she was Dad’s caregiver.  She selflessly cared for Dad for 7 years.  Many times I would look at my mother in awe and wonder where her courage, kindness and resilience came from.  How could I not realize these characteristics are an inherited quality from you?

You the strongest woman I know, you are living proof that life goes on despite the detours life throws in our path.

You beat cancer, heart issues, survived World War II and so much more.  You are one of the most vivacious, optimistic, and resilient people I have ever known.

After my father died I counted down the minutes for you to arrive. Your hug instantly brought me back to my childhood.  During one of the saddest times of my life you made me feel safe and warm.  I didn’t want to let go and return to reality.

As we grieve the traumatic loss of my father I watch you selflessly hold us up. You are the light in the darkness guiding as we find our way in this new life without Dad. You are the definition of bravery and wisdom.  You are my Grandmother and I am proud to be your oldest granddaughter.
Photo Credit:  www.puzzlemobi.con

Grief, Kindness & Love

 Grief comes in waves. When the waves come crashing you grab for the closest form of life support.

When my Dad took his last breath a part of my heart left with him. Years of watching my father suffer, years of begging God to be merciful were now done. Just like that my life changed. And just like that my heart felt something it never felt before, excruciating pain. Pain so deep I thought I was going to die myself.

I developed my own little force field where I quickly realized I was unable to leave. My house, my parents house and my sister’s house.  Anything beyond that was disastrous.

Of course I had to leave the force field to visit the dreaded funeral home. My sister and I assisted our grief stricken mother as we prepared my fathers final goodbyes. We were already so tired, the thought of a wake was paralyzing me with fear. I worried my father’s wake was too overwhelming for my Mom after years of caregiving.  The thought of people commenting on my father’s appearance made me cringe.  Commenting on how sick he looked, how skinny he was, the color of his suit.   The image of him laying peacefully in his casket with his hands gently folded holding his rosary while guests were staring at him began to enrage me.  Rage quickly consumed my body. I didn’t want anyone to see or touch my father.  This wasn’t a special screening to an exclusive movie, this was my father.  I mean why do they call it a “viewing” anyway?   Why did we need to have a “viewing time” for a bunch of people to stand over my father’s body and make small talk?  Who thought of this form of torture for the surviving family member?

I began to question everyone, and think thoughts I’m now ashamed of.  I was angry, my father was dead and NOW people wanted to come see him?  It seemed so backwards to me. I was totally consumed with anger.  Knowing what I was thinking, my sister held my hand, smiled, looked into my eyes and said, “But it’s Dad.”  Ugh!  She was right.  At that moment my sister convinced my mom and I we had to do a wake. Between tears and heartache we made the arrangements complete with a proper military burial.

The dreaded day of the wake arrived.  The thought of walking into a room and seeing my sweet father in a casket was paralyzing me with fear. My mom and I slowly walked in for our private family viewing. Although I am the adult child comforting my mother, at that moment I felt myself regress to a child, grasping my mother’s hand for comfort and safety.  The funeral director greeted us with his programmed sad face and began babbling about how my father looked “fantastic.” telling us we are going to be very pleased.  To his defense we expressed concern about my Dad’s appearance because the cancer ravaged his body, but I wasn’t in the mood to discuss how “fantastic” my dead father looked.  I’m not sure what came over me but I looked at him and said, “He’s in THE box! No one looks fantastic in THE BOX.”  Well, that shut him up and thank goodness because I wasn’t in the mood to chit chat with the Grim Reaper for the rest of my father’s wake.

When we saw my father we cried enough tears to fill the Hoover Dam. Family viewing time ended and the room began to fill with countless guests.  As I sat next to my mother I felt like a Jack in the box getting up and down to hug people. People with tears brimming in their eyes. Grown men weeping over the loss of a great friend.  I began to feel silly for the rage I was feeling the other day.  I began to see the massive impact my father had on so many people, some people I never even met.

Slowly my anger was morphing into agonizing pain and a great sense of pride.  I scanned the room again and realized these people drove from near and far to pay respects to my father.  A four hour car ride to say your final goodbyes to a friend is nothing short of magnificent.  These people loved my father and were taking time out of their busy lives to pay their respects and offer condolences to Al’s girls.

What happened next was truly amazing.  I was making my way to the ladies room and I saw a group of uniformed police officers.  Please understand I felt like a Clydesdale horse walking around with blinders on.  I walked directly into the officer and he proceeded to hug me and offer me his condolences.  Wait what?  I rubbed my eyes and realized  this officer was one of my boyfriend’s officers.  These men all took time out of their busy schedules to drive to headquarters, put their uniforms on and then drive another hour to my fathers wake.  One by one each officer walked to my mother then my father’s casket and paid their respects.  I was overcome with gratitude and pride, I watched the entire room grow silent and observe a single file of uniformed police officers pay their final respects to my Dad.  I was moved to tears of pride.

It was at that time I was positive I felt my father touch my shoulder.  I know he was proud.

The outpouring of love and grief was apparent throughout the evening and into the burial the next day.  My father had an amazing send off, complete with The NJ State Police guiding our procession to the cemetery (special thanks to my brother in law) and the United States Army playing Taps at my father’s grave commemorating his service.

These are days that I will never forget.  They were the saddest days of my life, but they also opened my eyes to the kindness of others.  Kindness that was given to us during a time when we had nothing to offer.

You never forget the people who pay their respects to a deceased loved one.  I hope their behavior will help me to display the same acts of kindness towards others.

Acts of Empathy

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When someone dies, there is an entire cavalry of people who dash to offer the griever the comfort they know that they themselves would need.  In a world inundated with violence and hate there are a whole group of people with a whole lot of love just waiting to share it.  I know this because I have experienced this during the darkest time of my life.

A week before my father died he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. 

Immediately following that ambulance ride all these beautiful acts of empathy were displayed.  One by one, friends near and far were reaching out with one purpose in mind, to display acts of kindness and compassion during my family’s darkest moments.

And here are those acts of empathy as I remember:

The nurse taking care of my father sat with me outside my father’s room as I sipped a cup of coffee.  She touched my shoulder as I cried and said, “I know how you feel, I lost my Dad after a long illness.” Nurses are busy people!  This woman had an entire floor of sick patients but made the time to console ME.

A friend made a point of asking me every single morning for a status update.  One particular morning all I could say was “I hate all the tubes and wires sticking out of him, there are so many.” Tears filled both of our eyes and we kinda just remained there in a very comforting moment of silence.

Other friends were calling and texting non stop to see how my family was coping.

A week later my father died surrounded by his family. 

As far as death’s go it was a beautiful send off.  My Dad went straight to heaven, this I know for sure.  His suffering ended and ours was just beginning.  We needed our friends and family more than ever and they knew it.

Immediately following my father’s death more beautiful acts of empathy were displayed.  I’m not sure how or why but something as heartbreaking and tragic as my father’s death set off a chain of events that kept my head above water, these acts gave me a very tiny glimpse into a very tiny light during such a dark time.

And here are those random acts of empathy I so vividly remember:

My mom’s neighbor came by with a platter of sandwiches and cookies.  She sat on the couch held my moms hand and quietly listened.

Another neighbor delivered dinner for the next two nights.  She sat on the couch, held my mom’s hand and prayed with her.

A platter of sandwiches arrived from friends with a note that said, “We love you.”

Flowers, beautiful flowers were arriving with even more beautiful messages.

Friends called, texted and called again despite me losing my voice and not answering my phone.  Their messages were, “when you’re ready we are here for you”

Family and friends began sending old photos of my Dad.  With each photo they wrote a memory of my Dad.  I loved seeing the photos, new and old.  It was like looking into a mirror and seeing a part of me.

And the cards, so many beautiful cards were sent to my home, my mother’s home and my sisters home.  Each card was accompanied with a beautiful note.  I knew my Dad was an awesome guy, but these notes supported my theory!  Some of the stories even put a smile on my face and made me giggle. Each note was like receiving a big virtual hug.

I understand death is something so many would rather just not deal with unless it’s their inner circle.  It’s that giant white elephant in the room.  I’ve even written about people, family who have disappointed me by their cold non reaction to my grief.  People who have met my father, spent holidays with my father and never even took 5 seconds to express condolences.

Look I get it, there was a time when I would have totally rather done anything other than pay respects for some dead guy.  I’ve done it myself, we all do.  But now death has taken my one and only father, the man who raised me.  My best friend, the guy you met.  The guy who asked about you regularly despite the monster he was battling.  Death has hit home now.

I can only hope that all these wonderful acts of empathy have opened my eyes and will enable me to be a better person, to shower others with random acts of empathy when they are being pulled into the black hole of grief.

“Empathy is pain’s best antidote…The pain doesn’t go away, but somehow or other, empathy gives the pain meaning and pain with meaning is more bearable.”

Ann Finkenbeiner

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