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  • Writer's pictureHeather Quinn

Holidays, Loss, and Near Death Experiences

(Note: This is an older blog post from my very neglected Wordpress blog,

My favorite cousin recently lost his grandma, just days before Christmas. There’s no right time to lose a loved one, but the holidays have got to be the worst one. He was at one moment expecting his grandma to be a part of his family’s Christmas celebration, then his father told him the bad news, and suddenly, in a moment, everything changed. I talked to him on the phone, and the rawness of his feeling, the depth of his love for her and his sadness over her loss touched me. He said she was the best grandma in the world, and I believe him. He said that he wished she could just appear in his room and tell him she loved him, just once more. We never know when the last time we’ll see a loved one will be, and no matter how nice our goodbye is, it’s never sufficient.

I’ve had a lot of loss in my life, and from a young age, and I sometimes worry that I’m hardened to it. It must be a common feeling to those of us who lost close family or friends as children. I lost my father when I was just 10 years old.

As a child, I remember being very worried about death. At four or five, I would lie awake worrying about it, running through all the scenarios I could think of for how it could happen, and what would come next. Even worse than dying myself, it seemed, was the possibility of losing my parents. I seemed to me impossible that they could die, and I could go on living. I would imagine how they might die, who would take care of me and my siblings, what their bodies would be like, who would take care of their bodies, where we would live, on and on and on, until I would go into my parents’ room and wake my mother up. She was always patient about it. She would explain that she wasn’t going to die, that my father wasn’t going to die, that they would be there for a very long time, to take care of me and my siblings for as long as we needed them. Then she would tuck me back into bed. Even though I knew that she was lying to protect me, that she couldn’t promise never to die, I’d allow myself to believe her anyway, and finally, fall asleep.

All that worrying didn’t do me any good. When it really came time to lose someone, I was not prepared.

When my father died, it still seemed an impossibility that I could lose him forever, seemed impossible that he would never return, seemed impossible that I could just keep on living anyway. Everything in my life suddenly shifted and was made foreign by his absence. You wake up in the morning and you forget. Then, with a jolt, you remember. You’ll never see that person again, they have been erased completely, and it’s like you suddenly exist in a parallel universe right next to the universe you thought you lived in, identical in every way with the exception of that one person. In grief, your life becomes a wheel that rotates around a spoke that is an absence. Everything is heavy with absence and missing. He died in June, but even six months later, our first Christmas without him was hard.

A few years went by, and then I lost my grandfather. A few more years, and then my mother. The thing that had once seemed so impossible, that I could lose the central people in my life, became commonplace. I started to live more comfortably in that parallel universe where I would either lose everyone I ever loved, or they would lose me, and I realized that everyone I ever knew lived there with me and that it’s always been that way. And somehow, that shift has become reassuring. There hasn’t been a decision that I’ve made in my life since the death of my mother more than ten years ago that hasn’t revolved around the fact that I will die someday, that there is no stability I can ever gain, no success, that will prevent that. It has made me braver, has made me prioritize self-fulfillment over safety, and I’m glad for that. But I also sometimes wonder if it’s also made me a little too hard, a little too tough.

My maternal grandmother Elaine Mary Rene McCarthy Quinn, passed away February 10 at the age of 79

This spring I lost my grandma, the grandma I share with my favorite cousin. I probably wouldn’t have met him yet if she hadn’t gotten sick. He lives in Florida with his father – my uncle – and his mother, and the nursing home where she spent most of her last days is near their home. I went to visit her there for a few days when it was clear that she was near the end. She had dementia, and a fall sped the progression of her illness. When I was with her she was rarely lucid, only spoke a handful of words, and was in a great deal of pain from a broken hip and bed sores, but there were moments when she was really present with me, and I’m so glad I had that time to share with her. I stayed with my uncle and got to know my cousin better. He’s 12 years old, and already one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Really funny, smart, and a lot of fun to be around. Most importantly, he’s one of the most open-hearted and warm people I’ve ever known.

Talking to him today about his grandma, I realized that, as tough as I sometimes feel I need to be, the feelings are all still there for the people I have lost, and I’m glad. The times I’ve felt numb have always been harder than the times I’ve really felt grief. Sometimes there’s just too much to feel all at once time. It comes out, even if it’s years later.

A lot of people I care about have lost loved ones this year, or in the past few years, and I’m thinking about them right now. My oldest friend lost her grandmother. My ex-teacher, mentor, and friend lost her mother. Another very close friend has an uncle who is very ill. It doesn’t matter if the loss was a week ago, a month ago, or years ago. It stays with you, especially this time of year. The thought just pops into your head unbidden. I might be making Christmas cookies, wrapping presents, watching Charlie Brown Christmas, and the thoughts come: My mother is dead, I’ll never see her again. My father is dead, I’ll never see him again. My grandfather, my other grandfather, my grandmother. On and on. And even though I’m not four years old anymore, climbing into my mother’s bed to be reassured about mortality, the enormity of those losses, and the impossibility of these absences, is still hard for me to wrap my head around.

For all of us who have these thoughts this time of year, for my friends and family, and even strangers who might be hurting, I wanted to share a passage from my grandfather, Dick Quinn’s, book Left for Dead that makes me feel a little better. In it, he describes a near-death experience that he had following a heart attack. This happened years before I was born, but I remember that he talked about it frequently – to me and my siblings, to other family members, even to radio and talk show hosts when he was interviewed about his books. I was always a little embarrassed for him, worried that people wouldn’t take him seriously, but I’m glad he told this story so often, because it’s a comfort to me, now, to read it. Here it is below. I hope it makes someone out there feel a little bit better too, and I hope you’ll let yourselves feel whatever you need to feel at this difficult time of year.

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