The gifts that come from losing loved ones

After three people close to Tracy Chappell pass away, she’s reminded of how precious life is.

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Tracy’s brother-in-law, Michael, meets Avery for the first time. Photo: Tracy Chappell.
Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

They say it happens in threes, sad things like this. I had hoped it wasn’t true.

My two grandmothers passed away this year, just a few months of each other. They were both loving, involved presences in my life until they were in their 90s. When they died, I was brought to tears, and navigated some new conversations with my daughters about life, death, everything in between, and what comes after. I will miss my grandmas — I already do — but my overwhelming emotion is that I was lucky to have them so long.

Then, three weeks ago, my brother-in-law died suddenly, tragically. I will never forget that day — our girls wrestling to get into their swimsuits to go swimming at his house, then the horrific, unbelievable phone call. Having to tell them. Watching my husband sobbing. Racing to get there, to be with everyone else whose heads and hearts were spinning with unimaginable grief.

I thought we had handled the other deaths in our family very well, but we made one key mistake: the discussion centred around a person’s body getting old and worn out after a long, happy life. This was not that. This was nothing like that. There were no circle-of-life conversations. We floundered, and I called my parents, who immediately made the three-hour trek to where we were to be whatever we needed them to be. They took the girls home with them and left us with our outrage and sorrow. I’m glad for it. Because this was not that.

Read more: Explaining death to children >

I think about dying a lot. I don’t know if that’s unusual. It’s not in a morbid hide-under-the-covers way, but in a practical, mom-like manner. My husband admonishes me for such offhand comments like, “If I die, make sure you check on the kids before you go to bed.” I’ve reminded him that if I’m not around, he needs to stock up on kids’ clothes the season before, and he should pick up toys on clearance and save them for birthdays and holidays. I’ve suggested that, should anything happen to me, he should hire an after-school nanny so the girls have a smiling, familiar face to pick them up at school and ask them about their day and make a good dinner.

I don’t plan on dying until my kids are my age, but let’s face it: No one’s letting me choose my exit date. I’ve known too many people who didn’t get the chance to watch their kids grow into middle age, or even middle school, despite their best intentions. I sometimes think about what my girls’ life would be like without me. I’m grateful that I have an incredible husband. I would never have to worry about them. But still, he doesn’t know all the little things I do behind the scenes, or where I keep their vaccination records, or more importantly, the 24/7 organization mechanism that ticks away in my brain. I know they would work it all out without me. But I hate the thought that they might ever have to.

My brother-in-law was Jewish, and at his beautiful service, the Rabbi talked about how their faith instructs them not to ask “why?” when things happen, but just to accept them. I find this a lovely idea, but impossible to carry out. “Why?” is on my mind all the time. It’s on my kids’ minds, too, wondering why they won’t see Uncle Michael again, a man who loved them beyond words, who delighted in watching their hockey games and listening to their stories and coming to their birthday parties, who followed their tales religiously here on my blog — our #1 fan. He was a jovial, beautiful spirit to be around, one that always left you feeling a glow. I had to tell them things like this sometimes just happen, even when it doesn’t make any sense, and we have to hold all of our memories of him, and our times together, in our hearts. We should keep talking about him, and telling stories about him and we must never, ever forget him and how much he loved us.

I do believe that every life we touch, and that touches ours, provides us with something — a gift, a lesson, a memory, a story, a perspective. So all I can do today is to take my very favourite things about the people I have loved and lost this year — my mom’s mom’s thoughtfulness and knack for making things extra-special; my dad’s mom’s selflessness and ability to be content with exactly what she had; my dear brother-in-law’s love of people and his way of making everyone feel welcome and important, like they were family — and remember that these were gifts they were here to give the world, the lessons on how to live that I learned from them. I should ask myself what lessons I’ll be leaving behind.

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