The holidays can be especially painful for those who’ve lost a loved one
This holiday season will be the first one Virginia Partain will spend without her husband, Jim, since they married in 2004. Jim, a veteran who was exposed to the carcinogenic herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, died in May after a nine-year battle with multiple myeloma—or bone-marrow cancer—at age 67.
For those who have lost a loved one, the traditions and memories associated with the holidays can produce particularly overwhelming waves of grief. Virginia, a 59-year-old English teacher at Paradise High School, said during a recent phone interview that Jim’s birthday in August and Veterans Day hit her “like a ton of bricks,” and that she anticipates more of the same on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
“We always went on a cruise during the holidays, or had a big family event. Neither of those things are happening this year,” she said. “I’ve been invited to dinner by quite a few people, but I tell them I don’t know if I’ll be up for it. I want the option to stay home in my pajamas if that’s what I want to do.”
Virginia described her late husband as “outgoing, gregarious and happy,” her voice trembling as she recalled “this little thing we used to say to each other: He’d say ‘I love my wife,’ and I’d say back to him, ‘I love my husband; he’s the best.’”
Jim was diagnosed with multiple myeloma just four months after he and Virginia were wed in 2004; he was told he had two to four years to live.
“Once he found out he was sick, Jim lived his life to the fullest,” Virginia said. “We traveled. We went on 13 different ship cruises; we went to Mexico and drove all over Canada. Whenever I had vacation time, we went on a vacation. Even during the worst of it, he had a smile on his face.”
Two stem-cell transplants and multiple blood transfusions helped Jim outlive his initial prognosis by five years. But in January of this year, Jim’s oncologist told him he would likely die within six months. At Jim’s request, family and friends gathered in the spring for two living memorials in lieu of a traditional funeral.
On May 3, after a final blood transfusion, Jim entered Paradise Hospice House, where Virginia faithfully stayed at Jim’s bedside through the final days of his life. “The nurses were amazing,” Virginia emphasized. “They gave him such love and comfort and care.”
Jim died on the evening of May 14, after coping with increasing levels of pain for several days. Despite being medicated, he managed these last words: “I love my wife.”
Julie Sciligo, bereavement coordinator at Paradise Hospice House, which is under the umbrella of Feather River Hospital, knows from both personal and professional experience how difficult this holiday season is likely to be for Virginia. Sciligo’s mother died about four years ago, and the holidays bring back her grief as fresh as ever.
“When you’re getting together with your loved ones and a family member isn’t there, it just magnifies that loss,” she said during a recent interview. “I don’t think that part ever gets easier.”
In her work, Sciligo follows up with the family members and spouses of those who have passed away at Paradise Hospice House with phone calls, mail and the occasional house visit. She said such efforts are important because the support that people receive early in the bereavement process tends to lessen over time.
“With loss, in the beginning, people have so much support from friends and family,” she said. “Then time passes by, and people expect you to move on: ‘It’s been six months—why aren’t you feeling better?’ It’s a long, long process. You learn to live with it and move on with your life, but [the grief] is always still there.”
Sciligo said that for those facing the holiday season without a loved one for the first time, it’s important to do what feels right regarding traditions once shared.
“Don’t be afraid to change it up a bit, do something a little different and create some new traditions,” she suggested. “If you don’t want to do that, at least tell your family what you’re up to doing and not up to doing; make your needs known. Do the things you want to do—if decorating the tree is really important to you, do it. If it’s not really all that important, skip it this year.
“Whatever you choose to do, remember you always have next year.”
Virginia often finds herself distracted by her busy teaching schedule and her students at Paradise High, but she’s always reminded of her husband’s absence when she returns home.
“When I go home and close the door, he’s not there,” she said. “He was always so present in my life. Now I go home and there’s a quiet to the house.”
If Virginia isn’t up to celebrating Thanksgiving Day, she may opt to volunteer her time instead.
“I want to find a place I can go be of service,” she said. “I’m looking for ways I can get outside of myself, to think about others. That helps me get out of my grief.”
She’s also looking forward to Paradise Hospice’s annual Light Up A Life event on Dec. 3, which will include a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony, a candle-lighting and sing-along, music by the Paradise Adventist Academy youth choir and refreshments.
Virginia believes returning to the place where Jim was “able to die with dignity” will be a fitting way to celebrate his life. “I’m excited about the lighting ceremony,” she said. “To me, it’s a way of honoring Jim.”