Holidays Will Never Be The Same After Losing Both My In-Laws
We live with the echoes of their voices and the images of their faces.
In November 2021, my husband received the devastating news of his mom’s diagnosis: late-stage pancreatic cancer. The doctor gave her six to 12 months to live. There are no words to describe the emotions that erupt from the enormity of learning such things. There is a soul-shattering shock that shakes you to your core as you wrestle with the truth of what it means.
My mother-in-law was the anchor who held the family together. She raised her four kids with her lifetime love in a farmhouse they called home for over 50 years. Her endless devotion to her kids and grandkids created a gravitational pull that brought us all together for regular dinners and special occasions. Losing her would be the hardest thing my husband would ever go through. Losing her would be incredibly hard for me and our kids too. Losing her would shatter the entire family into broken scattered pieces in ways we couldn’t imagine.
We all faced last year’s holiday season with sadness, struggling to accept the reality that this could be our final one with her here. There was a somber spirit that hovered over our celebrations as we grasped each moment tight, carrying on the annual traditions that always meant so much to her and even more to us. My husband and his siblings shared their favorite childhood stories while their parents chimed in too. We reflected on my mother-in-law’s homemade meals and delicious pies made from the elaborate garden she cultivated through the years. We reminisced about her crafting annual Christmas pageants with special costumes and props, to celebrate the sacred story with her grandkids. She always put careful planning into every holiday, from Easter egg hunts with treasures to find in their acres of woods, to sparklers and colored cupcakes on the Fourth of July. She held the heart of our family and always kept the pulse going, bringing her light and love into every family gathering.
The new year came with more unimaginable news that my husband’s father had fallen and was transferred to the hospital. His health had been declining with Alzheimer’s — which was already so hard, and now new scans showed several cancerous lesions growing rapidly in his brain. They sent him home to die with his beloved wife.
With both my in-laws on hospice, they needed additional care during the countless hours that help wasn’t scheduled to be there. My husband and his siblings sacrificed all they could to tend to their parents’ needs with the strength and stamina that only love can bring. At times, it was unbearable, the stress and strain of it all. Those months were filled with desperation in the thick of heart-wrenching pain. But we also felt immense gratitude for the time we’d been given to soak up their presence — knowing our days with them were limited. Every moment was one to be treasured. Every word spoken and every hug given could possibly be their last until the dreaded day came when his mom took her last breath. Nine days later, her beloved husband did too.
No one should have to bury both their parents at the same time. But there was something sacred in that sad summer day when the trumpets played Taps and the priest gave his blessing on two beautiful souls who spent a lifetime loving each other as both left this world together.
The death of a loved one can fragment a family, leaving people shattered in their grief. Everyone survives in their own way while learning how to live with their loss. We are meandering through those murky shadows now, trying to find our footing on this new barren ground. Sadness can sweep in on any given day and pull my husband under the thick blanket of grief. I can tell when he’s submerged in his sorrow and needs to process the pain. I’m thankful he is allowing himself to mourn as he should, instead of holding it all in. He has been so strong through this trauma of losing both his parents, and I’m always worried about him. I’m working through my own sadness too as we both travel down this road together and reach for each other during the really hard days when we miss them so much.
My in-laws were two of the most generous people I’d ever known, full of kindness and grace, humility and compassion. They were deeply embedded in our lives. From the moment I met them, they invited me into their family like I was one of their own. We did life together. And now we are forced to face all the details of our days with ongoing reminders of their absence. And this festive season just magnifies all that used to be and the deep void within our family.
People say the holidays are the hardest after losing someone you love. I’m facing that truth as our family celebrates Christmas in the farmhouse again, now empty of my in-laws’ belongings and them. The memories of their last holiday here keep flooding in, along with our history full of family traditions that will never be the same. There will be no homemade meals or delicious pies, but we’ll create a new feast with our own recipes and tell stories of past holidays to keep their memory alive. We’ll play our favorite family board games, remembering how much they enjoyed them too. Each grandkid will take their turn reading my mother-in-law’s cherished Christmas storybook to honor this special and sacred tradition. I’m giving a copy to them all, with hopes they’ll pass it on to the next generation.
I know many who are trudging their worn-out hearts and weary bodies through their own hazy landscape of loss during this time of year. Nothing about this season feels good or right. Nothing feels festive when there’s an empty hole in every celebration. You can’t conceal your grief in gifts wrapped with bright-colored bows. It just doesn’t work that way. No matter how many twinkling lights you hang or homemade meals you make, the deep ache won’t disappear, and the sadness will still linger without them here.
We all need to give grief the space it needs, especially during this season. We live with the echoes of their voices and the images of their faces and the remnants of their presence while we’re all doing the best we can to go on. We’ll tell their stories and honor their memories over and over again. And somewhere in the darkness, we hope their light still filters in.
Have any of you lost your parents or your in-laws? How do you cope during the holidays? Let us know in the comments below.