Navigating grief at what may be my dad’s last Christmas

I hate traveling. Scratch that; I hate traveling to my hometown. It’s not that I don’t love my small South Texas town. I really do. It’s the home of Selena, with the prettiest stretch of beach on the Gulf Coast and the best tacos northeast of the Rio Grande. My hometown has a lot of charm — but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with traveling home. Stuff that I’d rather not think about, memories I don’t want to dwell on, and feelings that are hard to explain to others. Still, I’ll soon be making the journey down south to spend Christmas there with my family.

“This could be dad's last Christmas, my mom’s voice whispered a few days ago while we talked on the phone.

“I know,” I wanted to tell her. I haven’t been able to stop knowing. I don’t have the luxury of not knowing.

Since my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic and liver cancer earlier this year, the feeling that anything we do together could be his last lingers in the back of my mind. His last summer. His last birthday. His last Halloween. His last Christmas.

I already skipped Thanksgiving to continue a new tradition with my young family — a much needed escape from family drama that feels so selfish now. There’s no avoiding this trip. I need to be there. Dad needs me. And I need to be there, for me. Maybe I don’t realize that right now, but later — after dad is gone — I will.

Though there’s no hope for a cancer-free future for my dad, there is the possibility of remission. With his first round of chemo behind him, my family and I are anxiously waiting to see if his PET scan results demand more treatment. If so, we get another shot at battling this thing; we get more time with Dad. The only other outcome is one that starts the countdown we’re not ready to face.

Dealing with grief during the holidays isn’t anything new.

My husband’s family is still grieving the loss of his grandmother — and the amazing pumpkin pies she whipped up every Thanksgiving — two years after her passing. Whenever It’s A Wonderful Life comes on TV, I can’t help but think of my own grandma’s love for George Bailey’s story, even though she’s been gone for eight years now. When the people we love leave us, the holidays become a bittersweet collection of memories starring our lost family members.

We grieve, and it helps us heal. false

But my dad isn’t dead. My family is not grieving him, but the lack of time we have left with him.

It’s called anticipatory grief. It happens when we experience the expectation of loss before that loss actually happens. For the 42% of Americans who have dealt with the terminal illness of a loved one, this type of mourning is all too familiar.

Just like when death happens suddenly, individuals impacted by their loved one’s terminal diagnosis feel all the stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance all have their roles to play in the healing process. However, when dealing with a terminal case, you’re mourning someone who is still alive — and will mourn them again when they actually pass.

And that’s where I’m at now.

As I plan for my trip, I make a mental list of questions to ask my dad. After eggnog and pecan pie, I’ll ask him about final arrangements and DNRs. As I shop for Christmas gifts, I’m torn between a practical gift versus something fun and frivolous for my dad. It may forever be known as the last gift I give him, and it all seems so meaningless. I feel sad and powerless and I can’t help the angry tears that form as I write this. God, I’m tired of crying.

But I can’t focus on that for too long, because I don’t know how much time I have left with my dad, how long my children will have with their beloved Pop Pop. But I’ll be damned if we spend that whole time crying. I can’t let the thought that this could be “one of the lasts” stop me from using the time we have with him to the fullest. There’s no time to dwell — no matter how unfair it feels.

Instead, we’ll spend an afternoon making tamales — more than we can eat in a dozen Christmases — while we watch Clarence get his wings in It’s A Wonderful Life. The coffee and hojarascas will be as plentiful as family and friends who stop by to visit with us. The thick incense of midnight mass will follow us home and into our dreams. The kids will be spoiled by treats of candy canes, clementines, and walnuts from their stockings long before they open any presents. Gifts will be exchanged, thanks will be given, memories will be made. And, yes, we will cry — but they will be tears of laughter and love.

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