NPR

When The Holiday Season Is Transformed By Loss

Alcestis 'Cooky' Oberg lost her father-in-law unexpectedly on Christmas Day in 1982. For the first few years, it meant that Christmas was a somber time. Oberg, a contributor to USA Today, talks about how the mood of the holidays evolved for her family over time.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This time of year is supposed to be about joy and family. But if you've lost a loved one around the holidays, it can be tough to find that happiness again. Last week's shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, are one painful reminder of that fact. This week, extreme winter storms have already claimed lives. So if you've experienced a loss around the holidays, either recently or some time ago, how did that experience change this season for you and how has it evolved over time? Let us know at 1-800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Alcestis Oberg, who goes by Cooky, unexpectedly lost her father-in-law on Christmas Day 30 years ago. Her family was unwrapping presents when they heard the news. They dropped everything and took a flight from Texas to New York and as you might expect, celebrating Christmas was different with her family in the following years. Cooky is on USA Today's board of contributors and she wrote a column about the process of transforming a holiday filled with grief into one filled with joy. Cooky joins us now from her home in Dickenson, Texas. Cooky, welcome to the show.

ALCESTIS OBERG: Hello, Ari. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Fine. Thanks. Take us back 29 years to that first Christmas after you lost your father-in-law. What was it like?

OBERG: Well, that was kind of a shocking call. Here we are, unwrapping presents and we've got a little - we had a little boy, a five-year-old boy, at that time and having the joyful moment that everything Christmas should be and man, it turned on a dime to the opposite of what it should be. It was a shock. It was a terrible thing. It became the opposite. It was a lost Christmas. It was a - it's when Christmas becomes totally opposite of what it should be.

SHAPIRO: And the year after that, the anniversary of his passing.

OBERG: Well, we, you know, memorialized him but kind of went on. And then the year after that, we had another son born whom we named for my father-in-law, his name was John Lincoln, and we named the son John. And then in subsequent years, decades later, we have Johns in every single generation of the family down through his great grandchildren.

SHAPIRO: I imagine that in the 30 years since, you have lost other family members. But how was losing a family member at the holidays different?

OBERG: I think because it's at a holiday that it becomes more amplified. I think the grief is more amplified the fact that it happened on Christmas, which seems to be such a contradiction in the flow of life itself, that I think that day of the fact that someone dies on a holiday makes it more memorial. You know, I can't remember when different members of the family have died. I have to kind of scratch my memory if it's not Christmas or if it's not Thanksgiving, but that day stands out. However, the day he died became less important overtime than what he lived for. He just loved family. And so, you know, we always think of family getting together but, you know, that we in the family is reconstituted every year by the events of life: by marriages, by birth, by moving, by new jobs and new friends.

SHAPIRO: You're right that life has this sort of relentless way of forcing us forward whether we want to move or not.

OBERG: Oh, callously relentless. It moves, yeah, kicking and screaming, we're going to be moved forward physically and emotionally through time no matter how inconsolable we are. And amazing thing about Christmas is it doesn't stop with that one lost Christmas, it's carried forward by the fabric of life itself.

SHAPIRO: Do you still think of him every Christmas?

OBERG: Every Christmas, but not in a sad way. We don't think of them as this is the day he died. This is the day he lived for. Every year we think, boy, wouldn't he have loved to meet our son John's bride, you know, when he got married, and her wonderful family? Wouldn't he have loved to see all these great-grandchildren named John and Lincoln all over the place? And all his children named their kids either John or Lincoln. So it was - he was richly love and richly remembered - and happily, not unhappily.

SHAPIRO: Let's hear from a caller. This is Jeff in Fairfield, Ohio. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

JEFF: Listening to the lady talking reminded me that exactly - 1984 - it's been about 29 years ago that my paternal grandmother died today, the day after Christmas. And just over three years ago, my own father died early in December. And that year - it was like two-and-a-half weeks after, or before Christmas. So that Christmas, we were all numb. It was - it's just like he hadn't - it was still fresh in our minds that he was gone, and we somehow muddled through that. But with...

SHAPIRO: And since then?

JEFF: I'm sorry?

SHAPIRO: And since then?

JEFF: I am dealing with my father's death, you know, really well. I think of him. This year when I was putting the outdoor bulbs out on my bushes and on my gutters, I thought - pardon me. I remembered that we did this when I was a kid, my younger sister and dad and I. And I thought of my dad at that moment, and I thought, dad, we love doing this.

And I also go all out with my house. I've got four artificial trees in my house. Every single ornament that I've got, even the ones I remember as a little kid, that my mom and dad got when they were married, are on a separate tree. And it helps me get through all of that a lot easier. I try and still make it as joyous as I can, but there's - for me, there's always that little twins of sadness in me. And I still love doing it because I know my dad, or even his mother, wouldn't want me to give up on Christmas. That's not what it's about.

SHAPIRO: Cooky, I'm hearing an out of recognition in your voice.

OBERG: Absolutely. I bake my mother's Christmas cookies every year. And I used to decorate them with my sister. My mother used to bake them. My father would come in and watch us and laugh and all that. All the people in that room are dead except me, you know. But I carry that tradition forward to my grandkids. It's going to be different for them than it is for me. Every time I bite into that cookie, it brings back...

(LAUGHTER)

OBERG: ...1957, you know, sitting in this kitchen. It's cold outside. It's warm inside. And there we all were. And there's a little sadness to that. It's a deep tradition, and it's one I relentlessly carry forward because even if they don't have the same experience, it's something that is deeply remembered and deeply held in the family.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Jeff. And...

JEFF: (unintelligible)

SHAPIRO: Thank you. And, Cooky, it sounds as though the things that can make losing someone during the holidays difficult can also be a source of comfort.

OBERG: Well, actually, when my father-in-law died, he was very involved in civic organizations and church organizations. He took Meals on Wheels to the old folks in the town. Everybody loved him.

So this huge well of love and sympathy opened up to us, you know. And the church was absolutely full, overflowing during his funeral, even though it was, you know, a few days after Christmas. And then, as people came back into town - you know, lot of his friends were out of town and people that knew him. It was wave upon wave upon wave of this love and sympathy and support, and it reverberated all for several years with my mother-in-law. She was being pulled over and, you know, helped out and, you know, invited a dinner on, you know, for years afterwards. I think it was - it opened - you know, he was dead, but it opened this door to this huge human sympathy that I think is the best thing about our species. We help each other out in times like this.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to Lauren in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Lauren. You're on the air.

LAUREN: Hi. I just wanted to weigh in a little. We've had a very hard season in my family. Right before Thanksgiving, I got a call that my father was in the hospital in Texas. And I live in Kentucky, as you just said. So my mother and I shipped out and went to Texas for two-and-a-half weeks, then he actually passed away right after Thanksgiving...

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry.

LAUREN: ...from a very sudden, strange disease. And then while we were in Texas, a coworker of my mother's - also the constable for our tiny, tiny town - passed away suddenly. And then right here before Christmas, my mother's best friend had a car accident and passed away. So we have had a rough month. And what I believe has been the - I don't want to say the best part, but the least-bad part is that in my mother's side of the family, it's literally my grandmother, mother and me. That is the whole family, pretty much.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LAUREN: There is a few extended cousins who come in once a while. But on my father's side of the family, there's this huge, huge family of cousins that I never got to know.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LAUREN: And then, all of a sudden, I have all these cousins emailing me, calling me, texting me, friending me on Facebook, sending me pictures of me when I was three, and I knew them. So I've actually gained an entire other family out of this outpouring of support similar to what she just said, and it's just been amazing. And one most of the helpful things is that we - I always have someone I can call. If you have someone that needs - that is going through something in your family or in your friends' circle, and they call you and it's 3 a.m., roll over and take that call (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

LAUREN: That can put them into a sense of deeper place of despair if they just need to talk up to somebody, you know, because they just need somebody come over and - I don't know, eat a cookie.

(LAUGHTER)

LAUREN: And I have so many friends and so - such a large family, I didn't even realize I had until this happened. And I can walk next door and knock on my best, you know, one of my best friends' doors and say, Joanie(ph) , I really need to talk. And so they're, OK, let me wipe the sleep out of my eyes.

SHAPIRO: That's wonderful. Thanks so much for the...

LAUREN: So it's been wonderful. And if you have a friend that's going through something, that's all I can say for it.

SHAPIRO: That's great advice, Lauren. Thank you for the call. And I'm sorry for your loss.

LAUREN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to...

OBERG: See, I think there is a message of hope in all of that...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OBERG: ...you know, that the one door does shut for - irrevocably. You can't change that. But a whole other corridor opens to this great quality of human sympathy that we have.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah.

OBERG: Basically, Christmas is a real dynamic holiday. The we around the family table is reconstituted all the time. You pull in friends. You pull in family, distant relatives, who shows up, and all that changes from year to year. And I think that makes it a very vital holiday.

SHAPIRO: Let's hear from Sue Ellen in Marshalltown, Iowa. Hi, Sue Ellen.

JOELLEN: Actually, it's Joellen(ph).

SHAPIRO: Joellen. I'm sorry about that.

JOELLEN: Oh, no. That's OK. I've been called worse.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Hopefully not on this program.

OBERG: You haven't been called Alcestis, have you?

(LAUGHTER)

JOELLEN: Yeah. No...

SHAPIRO: Tell us your story.

JOELLEN: Sixteen years ago, my mom died on a Monday. Thursday was Thanksgiving. Sunday was her birthday. And I was also homeless at the time. And so my mom died thinking I was homeless.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JOELLEN: And - I'm sorry.

SHAPIRO: No, no. I'm sorry for what you've had to go through.

JOELLEN: Yeah. Holidays aren't great for me, and they never were.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JOELLEN: But I was telling a young lady earlier I - the longer she's gone, the more I miss her.

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, I feel like at the holidays, there's this expectation that everyone is so happy and joyful, that when you're not, it feels all the worse that you're not.

OBERG: Absolutely correct. Yeah.

JOELLEN: Yeah. I have no one - I just actually turned 55 December 12th. And nobody called to wish me a birthday.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JOELLEN: Nobody calls me for Christmas. I'm completely, truly...

OBERG: You haven't engaged into some family and adopted by them somehow?

JOELLEN: What's that? I'm sorry?

OBERG: You haven't been adopted by some family somehow? Sometimes, when I knew of someone being totally by themselves at Christmas, I would pull them into our family celebrations and make them a part of it.

JOELLEN: Well, I'm an atheist. So, like I said, I don't really get into the holidays. But, no. I tried to connect with an atheist community around me, but I can't find anybody. You know...

SHAPIRO: You know what? One bit of advice I've had that at times I found effective is that when you're a difficult place, helping others can sometimes be helpful, you know.

JOELLEN: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Well, Sue Ellen, I'm so sorry for your experience, and I appreciate you're calling.

JOELLEN: Mm-hmm. I love your show. And thank you for just listening to me.

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. Thank you very much. And I hope you have a happy new year.

JOELLEN: Yeah, thanks.

SHAPIRO: Cooky, let's go to another call. This is Ray in Mechanicsville, Virginia. Hi, Ray. Go ahead.

RAY: Hi. Hi, you all. Thank you for taking my call. As I was telling your screener, my family just lost my father to end-stage heart disease on - he died on December the 16th, and we just buried him on - this past - actually, this past Thursday. Tomorrow will be a week ago that we buried him. And, you know, he had been sick off and on, on a rollercoaster for about 16 years, and my mother being the caregiver. But in all of that, I think because of it being the holidays and even, you know, as we knew this was coming - we had called hospice in, and he was still lucid and everything was fine - we were all saying, oh, well make it through Christmas. Make it through Christmas. Make it through Christmas. Make it through the holidays.

But he didn't. And, you know, he went on his own terms. He made his own decisions, and the family was all behind him. And he died so peacefully and so - I mean, it was such a comfort to see that he was no longer suffering and that, you know, we all know that he's in a better place than where he was the Friday night before that I spent with him with my sister-in-law with him suffering from lack of oxygen to his brain because of the end-stage heart disease and the blockages and stuff.

And then to see him at death that afternoon when we walked in, it was just an amazing sense of peace that we all got. And now that it's, you know, Christmas Eve, we celebrated. And, you know, mom says, no, no, no, no. I want to make sure that we still have our Christmas Eve dinner and that we did everything...

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm. And what was that like?

RAY: It - well, it was bittersweet. It was very bittersweet. And, in fact, I wrote on my own personal blog about it being, you know, a Christmas that was bittersweet, that we were all glad to be together and glad that dad was no longer suffering, but, you know, we're sad that he's gone. But as I was telling your screener, I think from now on, we're going to appreciate this time of year so much more because of having that special time, even though it was seeing him suffer, but it brought the family together as a unit.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

RAY: I mean, even my mother's niece who doesn't come around all that much stayed with her on several nights, you know, during this whole process to make sure she was OK. My brother, who doesn't come around a whole lot, that, you know, was always talking about family and stuff but, you know, is not there sometimes because of work and everything else, had a very special moment with my dad on the Saturday before he died. And it's just an amazing thing that I think we've all experienced. We're all sad, but I think we're going to appreciate the holiday time that much more than we did before.

SHAPIRO: I'm so glad to hear that, Ray. Thank you for the call. And thanks also to our guest Cooky Oberg, who's on the board of contributors for USA Today, who's author of the article "Cherish Holidays in Good Times and Bad."

OBERG: And thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: She joined us from her home in Dickinson, Texas. Cooky, it's been a pleasure.

OBERG: It's been a pleasure for me, too.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, Celeste Headlee will be here talking with Baratunde Thurston about his book "How to Be Black." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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