How My Father’s Death Changed New Year’s Forever

How My Father’s Death Changed New Year’s Forever

By Jacqueline Eberle

 On New Year’s Day 2002 at 5:30 am, my phone rang; it was my brother-in-law. When I picked up the phone, I was informed that my father had passed away. My response was “What? What happened? “ My brother-in-law told me that my sister would be coming over to pick me up to go to my parents’ home; before he hung up, he told me he was sorry for the family’s loss.

When I hung up the phone, all I could think of while I was getting dressed was, “Why did you smoke so much and not take care of yourself?” After I had called Mom at midnight to wish her a Happy New Year, over 5 hours earlier, she told me Dad was still up because my aunt and uncle were staying overnight. Dad was in a good mood throughout New Year’s Eve; it was around 3:00 am when he passed away. When Mom found him on the kitchen floor, with a lit cigarette nearby, my aunt and uncle from the downstairs guest bedroom heard her trying in vain to wake him up. My mother had said that my father hadn’t been feeling well after he went to bed; he had tried to take baby aspirin to relieve his pain, but had spilled them all over the bathroom floor. My mother had told him that she would pick up the aspirin in the morning. 

When my sister, her infant daughter, and I arrived, Dad’s body was still lying on the kitchen floor, covered up in a blanket. Prior to that morning, I had never seen a body unless it was in a casket. I am thankful to this day that I did not see his face. About an hour after we arrived, the funeral home came to remove his body. I still remember watching everything as if it was a bad dream. I’m grateful that I can remember the last time I saw him on Christmas morning when we were chatting instead of seeing his body without the blanket.

I am still surprised that as many people came for the funeral, whether they were old friends or colleagues and in-laws of family members. The burial took place outside Milwaukee; an old neighborhood friend who lived in the area came to say goodbye and my sister and I both embraced her. Because Dad had served in the Korean War, he was buried with full military honors.

It has now been 17 years since Dad died. While the grief has lessened and we are “moving on” with our lives, to me, New Year’s Eve, and Day, will never be the same. I still regret not asking Mom to get Dad on the phone. If I had known he would be gone within hours, I would have jokingly asked, “I’m surprised you’re still up”, to which he probably would have responded, “Yeah, Jim and Dawn are here and I had to stay up”. Four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren have come into the world since Dad passed away; one niece was born six weeks after Dad died and one nephew is named for him. My mother was invited to a New Year’s Eve party that my youngest brother threw about 3 or 4 years after Dad died. Most of the family came, but Mom was unable to come due to memories of that New Year’s Eve. Once New Year’s Day arrives, Mom feels relieved that her loved ones arrived home safely on New Year’s Eve and she can begin to look forward to the New Year. Over the years, my mother has been asked if she has plans to remarry. Mom has told me that she does not want the pain of having to bury a spouse again.

As a volunteer grief support caller for a hospice, I have an opportunity to talk to surviving family members and friends of patients who have died at the hospice. When I call, it has been between two months and one year since their loved ones passed away. One survivor shared that they feel alone because their family and friends have begun to move on with their lives after the funeral and now feel lost because they are still grieving their loved one and still need support. This is a feeling that I can particularly identify with. When I returned to work, there was a flower on my desk and a sympathy card from my colleagues. About two weeks after I returned to work, a psychiatrist gave me a plant. My supervisor said it was OK if I needed to leave the area and cry, but another colleague seemed to forget, and almost didn't seem to care, that I was still grieving my father’s death. At the time of my father’s death, I was 44 years old, and I started to feel my own sense of mortality with Dad’s death. It was even more difficult because none of us, especially Mom, were able to say “goodbye” and let him know how much he meant to everyone who loved him.

Darcie Sims wrote in TouchStones in 2004 that “our loved ones are still and always will be a part of us. They are threads in our fabric and we cannot lose their love”. Although the children who were born after Dad’s death are now grade school students and teenagers, they are beginning to learn about what their grandfather and great-grandfather was like. Ironically, my niece, now 17, has her grandfather’s blue eyes, but neither of her parents is blue-eyed. Talk about someone who will always be part of our family, even though he is no longer physically present!

About the Author-------

I retired in March 2018 from the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division's Day program after 20 years. I worked with adults diagnosed with mental illness who live in the community. I graduated in 1994 from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a Bachelor's of Arts degree in Business and Management, with supports in Social Science and History. I earned a Master's of Science degree from Capella University based in Minneapolis, Minnesota specializing in General Human Services in 2012. In 2016, I earned a Grief Support Specialist Certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In addition to working as a secretary at Milwaukee County, I have volunteered as a Spiritual Care Screener at Aurora West Allis Medical Center in West Allis, Wisconsin since August 2013. In August 2014, I co-facilitated a support group at Zilber Family Hospice in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Since 2015, I have made grief support calls to the surviving loved ones of the patients who passed away at Zilber Hospice.

In March 2019, I began working on a grief support blog called "Living Through Grief After 60". It is a blog that is focused (but not limited to) for people 60 and over. In addition to talking about the grief of a loved one's passing, it also focuses on secondary, anticipatory, and disenfranchised grief. Blogs have been written on the grief associated with losing a pet, lifestyle changes such as retirement and losing a job, chronic health conditions, the grief of suicide, the pain of mental illness, and remembering a mother (and father) on their special days. Occasionally, sponsored posts from other authors will be written. So far, I have written sponsored posts on burnout and mindfulness to help deal with stressful situations.

It is anticipated that "Living Through Grief After 60" will be launched by the end of August 2019.

May 31st 2019 Jacqueline Eberle

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