By Katie Kieffer
The holidays can seem difficult and sad if you have recently lost a loved one. Christmas is a time of traditions and celebrations that include spending time with family. So, when one of the most important people in your life is suddenly gone, Christmas seems like it’s missing something.
This year, I lost three grandpas. Both my Grandpa Rick and my Papa Chuck (or “Chucky Wucky” as Grandpa Rick nicknamed him) passed away. My family’s dear hockey friend, “Grandpa Schmitz,” also left us. These men were all important to me as mentors, supporters and role models. Now they are gone, and their absence is real.
I’m not alone in missing a loved one – I know some of my friends have lost a parent or spouse. I cannot begin to imagine what this feels like. I also know that many Americans are separated from their loved ones due to long distances or a deployment.
When someone dies, you feel a loss. This is natural. Trees lose their leaves and go bare in the winter. At first, barren trees appear to be ugly placeholders against a dreary skyline. Then – the December snow falls – and leaf-less trees quickly morph into pure, sparkling spectacles fit for The Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Similarly, when we view death as a new stage instead of an end, we will open ourselves to the beauty of a full life.
My Papa Chuck’s death was like a nutcracker. During his life, I took his virtues for granted: “Good” was just the way he was. But, when he passed, he gave me the gift of cracking me open for a teaching moment.
Papa was a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps., husband of 63 years, father of five, grandfather of 17, great-grandfather of six and a friend to many. He was also an avid fisherman. When he retired, Papa would wake up early and go fishing by himself, and he would catch a ton of fish. Often, he would catch, clean, pack and deliver his fish – all in one day. Having a Grandpa like Papa Chuck was like having a fresher and more personal version of The Oceanaire in your own backyard. Papa and Nana would drive up to their children’s homes with packs of Papa’s sunnies and Nana’s freshly baked bread.
Often, Papa and Nana would have their grandchildren over for a fish fry. Papa had a special way of frying his fish that maintained their delicate texture and added just enough tang so they literally melted in your mouth. As a little girl, I remember asking my mom, “Can you cook your fish like Papa cooks his?”
Papa was 100 percent German, so he was good at getting things done – precisely and correctly – and he did not tolerate incompetence. Still, he spent countless hours teaching his children, nephews, and grandchildren how to fish and water-ski on Minnesota lakes – two tasks that require a lot of patience.
These memories shot through me when my Aunt Marylou handed me a picture that had been on my Papa’s dresser. The picture frame – appropriately – was in the shape of a little fish. Inside the fish frame was a tiny photo of a five-year-old girl with blondish curls smiling ear-to-ear in a purple ballerina sweatsuit (me). I now have this picture on my counter. It reminds me of Papa – my fisherman – and his high standards and values.
During this holiday season, remember your loved ones. Don’t be afraid to bring out old pictures and share stories with the family. This is one of the best ways to honor their life and to keep them in the present. Don’t shy away from discussing sorrow and tragedy. Humans relate to it – the Greek Tragedies and Romeo and Juliet are classics for a reason. Remembering the past is sometimes the healthiest way to cope with the loss and participate in this season of joy.