Gratitude in Grief

By Jennifer Davis Dodd

I’m the baby of my family—by more than a decade—and the only girl out of three kids. My two older brothers are alive, but my parents are not. In fact, in a few weeks, my parents will have been gone for 10 years.

It’s a huge milestone, a sad one.

The holiday season was always a favorite of my parents’—even though it was also their busiest.

My parents were both ordained ministers of The Salvation Army–Majors Don and Faye Davis, when they retired after 33 years—and I was proud of them.

I saw firsthand how hard they worked every “Christmas season,” which, in a faith-based nonprofit, started just before Thanksgiving and lasted until nearly midnight on 12/24.

You see in The Salvation Army, the holiday season is a busy time of providing special assistance to individuals and families—Christmas gifts to kids through the Angel Tree; blankets, sweaters, slippers and small treats to seniors and those in nursing homes or hospitals and beautifully laden food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts—as well as labor-intensive fundraising through the annual Red Kettle campaign. And that’s on top of all of the holiday festivities you expect from your church.

So, in the last few months of the year, my parents worked harder than ever. Even as a kid, I saw how hard Mom and Dad worked, how much of themselves they gave to others, how they made holiday magic real for so many lonely, hurting people.

And they still managed to find the whole season magical and wondrous and joyous. Mom especially loved to see the small electric flame of a candle in a house window. Dad loved to wind down at the end of the day in his rocking recliner, which always had a prime view of the Christmas tree. We’d drive around as a family, looking at everyone’s Christmas lights. Holiday tunes and Christmas carols were welcome 24/7: I remember Mom had a vinyl record of Elvis singing Christmas tunes and, as a family, we basically wore out a Burl Ives eight-track.

I love the holiday season as much as they did.

Though the holiday season of 2010 was a hard one.

Mom had surgery in July of 2010; she was supposed to spend a few weeks in a rehab hospital. But she never came home. She had one setback after another. She tried to hang on to her good mood, but that declined with her health. We knew the end was near; she was under hospice care for weeks. She passed the day after Thanksgiving.

I honestly can’t recall if I decorated the home I shared with my husband for Christmas that year.

Meanwhile, Dad had been diagnosed with a heart valve issue and needed surgery, but he waited until after Mom passed to schedule it for mid-December. I took family leave to be able to go home from the hospital with him and help out for a few weeks. He seemed to bounce back so well in the first few days after surgery—walking the halls as instructed, doing his breathing exercises–then had an aneurysm a few days before he was supposed to come home. He was in a coma. My brothers and I half-expected he’d pass on Mom’s birthday, 12/22, but he held on. And he woke up for a few days! And then, very early on Dec 30th, he left us too. 

My folks were older when I came along; Mom had me at 35, and Dad was 42. Growing up, some people mistook my Mom for my grandmother because she had beautiful silver hair. And my Dad–God love him—was bald. So, I was aware, as a kid, that my parents were theoretically closer to the ends of their lives than my best friends’ parents.

But I was completely unprepared to have lost the people who’d known me best and longest at 36.

So, yes, the holiday season of 2010 was hard. Honestly, every holiday season is hard. I certainly didn’t decorate as exuberantly in the first three years of their passing. But then I started to feel like I was missing out on the best parts of them by being miserly about the things that brought them such comfort and joy.

My first new holiday decoration purchase in many years was a single, battery-operated candle for the most prominent window in our home. I loved its glow. It felt healing.

And then there have been the extra-special blessings of a holiday card or letter from someone who knew them.

I always knew my parents were good, kind, respected people. But I do love to hear about them.

I’m blessed that their peers and leaders in the church continue to tell me how passionate and hard-working they were.

Mom and Dad were always deeply involved in our community (and because the church moved us every so often, there were several). The people who knew them in that civic-minded way often remember what kind-hearted, committed and dependable people I had as parents.

People closer to them—their congregation, their board members, our far-flung family—knew them even better, and in their notes I read about my Dad’s quirky sense of humor, booming laugh and heart for all stray animals. (“You found a kitten sheltering under your car? Call Major Don Davis with The Salvation Army.”) These same folks always talk to me about my Mom’s grace and gentility—and impish grin. (“Your mom was such a lady. She made me feel so good every time I saw her. But it made my day when I could make her giggle.”)

People they helped over the years—with toys for the kids, slippers for their housebound mother-in-law or meals for the family Christmas dinner—are never too proud to admit my parents had touched them.

When your parents have touched that many lives, that many hearts, that you continue to hear about it a decade after their passing, that gratitude does a lot to soften your own personal grief. At least it does for me.

I wish you, sincerely, the happiest holiday season; however you celebrate it, may you find both comfort and joy. 

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