Gratitude and Grief: When a Loved One Dies on Thanksgiving

Losing her father on a holiday was hard, but it also allowed her family to truly celebrate his life.

Posted in , Oct 25, 2019

Barbranda Lumpkins Walls

I walked into the hospice room. Dad was lying in bed—his eyes half-closed, his breathing barely audible. I’d rushed to Cleveland to be by his side. I’d been home in Alexandria, chopping vegetables for Thanksgiving dinner, when my sister, Nan, called.

“I got a call from the hospice,” she said. “Dad doesn’t have much longer.”

Oh, no! Not on Thanksgiving Eve, I thought.

Dad had Alzheimer’s. He’d been relatively stable until a series of infections prompted moves from assisted living to hospitals, rehab facilities, nursing homes and finally hospice in early September. It was agonizing to make the decision to separate him from our mom, who remained in assisted living.

I knew Dad’s life was coming to an end. But did it have to happen so close to Thanksgiving? It seemed tragic to lose a loved one on a holiday, our future celebrations tainted by grief. God’s timing is perfect, I tried to tell myself.

I hung up with Nan. I can make the drive, I thought, hoping Dad could hang on until I got there. I was throwing clothes into a suitcase when something urged me to look up flights. I found two that night with seats. I booked a ticket.

Then there was the matter of getting to the airport. My husband, Hal, and I saw news reports of roads clogged with holiday traffic. But once we got on the road, cars sped along the highway, almost as if willed forward. We got to the Baltimore airport in record time.

Now here I was in dad’s hospice room on Thanksgiving morning. “Hi, Dad. It’s me, Barb,” I said as I leaned over to kiss him. I put on one of his favorite CDs and pulled a chair close to his bed. We listened to the gospel quartet The Jubilee Hummingbirds sing “Free at Last.”


I took Dad’s hand. “Father God, thank you for blessing me with a wonderful father,” I said. “Thank you for his life. Please welcome him into your kingdom.”

I repeated my prayer until Dad opened his eyes. We had been together only 20 minutes. Had the Lord given him a reprieve? “Dad?” I asked. He yawned and took a deep breath before settling back into bed. Then he didn’t breathe again.

I ran into the hall for an aide. Moments later, two nurses were at Dad’s bedside. They checked his heartbeat and pulse. “I’m so sorry,” one nurse said.

I bent over and wailed—in grief yet also in gratitude. “Thank you, Lord, that he was not alone in his passing,” I whispered.

It wasn’t long before Nan and Mom arrived. Tears welled in Mom’s eyes as she stroked Dad’s face. They had been married for more than six decades. I couldn’t imagine the sense of loss she felt.

We drove to Nan’s house. It felt surreal to carry on with Thanksgiving, but we knew Dad would’ve wanted it.

So we roasted the turkey, heated the ham and cooked collard greens. We even made Dad’s favorite dish, “sweet potato stuff”: mashed sweet potatoes with brown sugar, butter, vanilla and cinnamon. Our family gathered around the table, heads bowed. I led us in grace.

“Thank you, Lord, for allowing us to be together at this time. Thank you for Dad’s life and all that he meant to us. Be with us now, and grant us your strength in the days ahead. Thank you for the food and all who prepared it. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.”

We passed the heaping platters of food around the table, from one family member to the next. It made me think of the full and wonderful life my father had lived, surrounded by people he loved—a life Dad had always been grateful for. Yes, it was fitting for God to call him home on Thanksgiving, even making it possible for me to be with Dad at the end. The timing was perfect indeed.

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