12/27/2011 02:27 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2012

The Holidays Without Poppy

Death is inevitable. It is even anticipated, if not expected, to occur for a parent long before your own demise. Still, even when it happens well into one's adulthood, losing a parent can be an overwhelming loss. I am both witnessing and experiencing this in my own family. My wife's dad, who had been a powerful, patriarchal figure, died suddenly this past summer. It is our first loss of a parent and it hurts deeply. His health had been fading for the prior year, but the illness that claimed his life was something none of us nor his doctors had predicted.

The impact on his wife of sixty years was, understandably, devastating. Theirs had been a marriage filled with love and laughter, one adventure after another. Life was always exciting. My wife, his only daughter, was his princess. His death shattered her world. Her father adored her and she worshipped him. Their bond, as is my wife's relationship with her mom, was unusually close, marked by multiple phone calls and daily visits. During his last year, his daughter became his de facto medical researcher and advocate when dealing with doctors, especially when the visits to various specialists and the pills they prescribed increased dramatically. Her devotion was complete and given freely, with love.

When he passed away, we did what many families do -- we gathered closer and consoled one another the best we could. We reminisced and laughed about the good times and comforted each other through the tears. I immediately took on the role he vacated. I was now, by default, the new man of the family and my unspoken but understood responsibility was to be a person of unwavering strength and calm. Our children's profound sadness was not unexpected. He was a loving, guiding and ever-present figure in their lives. He cherished his role as a grandfather and they, likewise, embraced him as their Poppy. He was a great Poppy. Our eldest daughter decided to move in with her Nana to ease her transition into life without this larger than life partner. I think it has helped them both.

Fall and winter marked the beginning of the dreaded "firsts." The first Jewish High Holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, the first Christmas/Hanukah and New Year's Eve without him. On January 6, his granddaughters will go to one of his favorite hotels to order martini's in honor of what would have been his eighty-seventh birthday. They will toast just the way he taught them, saying, "Health, Poppy."

After his death, my wife became convinced that she was visited almost daily by a butterfly in our yard, especially since seeing them in the past was such a rare occurrence. That regular sighting became a comfort to her, bridging her personal loss with a sense of hope. I gave my wife a simple crystal butterfly for her desk and an enameled butterfly bookmark so she could look down throughout the day and be reminded of her dad's continued presence in our hearts.

Everyone in our family clings to their own physical link to Poppy. His wife wears his necklace, Our eldest daughter cherishes his sweaters and his pajamas which she sleeps In every night. Our younger daughter has a new favorite perfume called "Poppy" and our son claimed one of Poppy's watches as his own. We each carry his digital image on our phones so we can see him whenever we miss him, which is often.

In a grieving group, which my mother-in-law joined a few months after her husband's passing, she was told that the feelings of emptiness and the tears were normal. Her fellow mourners said that the more pain you feel, the more you loved that person. I think that is only partially true. I believe the more pain you feel, the more you love that person. Even though they are physically gone, their impact on your life and the love you have for them continues, as it should. Life may end, but love does not and need not come to a halt as well. My wife read a quote which she carries in her wallet, "Grief is the price you pay for love."

I have come to the realization that a death in a family is not and should not be the death of a family. It is a painful but natural transition that we all experience. Death is inevitable. We must cherish the memories of the ones we lose. All of us will die. How we live is what matters most. That's a lesson we can all take to heart.