Pain, recovery after family losses reveal beautiful gift

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Me and my grandfather recreating our high five with my grandma looking on from the back during our Christmas feast on Christmas Even in 2010 at my grandparents' home in Oulu, Finland.

By Tuulia Koponen

Staff Writer

April 2, 2009. After coming home from school and hearing the news I did not want to believe it to be true. I locked myself into my bathroom and cried and cried.

I saw it coming. I had eavesdropped on Skype calls between my parents and my grandparents from my dad’s side and knew that my great aunt was not doing well. But, I never thought it was that bad.

I never thought that she would not recover and would pass away – and I never thought it would happen without having a chance to say a proper goodbye.

And I never thought the last time I would ever see her beautiful face would be the summer of 2006.

(From left to right) My father, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my dad's cousin sharing smiles at my great aunt and uncle's house in Oulu, Finland during my family vacation to Finland in the summer of 2006.
(From left to right)  Tuulia’s father, Teuvo Koponen, her  great aunt, Marke Siira,  her grandmother Liisa Koponen whom she calls Mami,  and  Marke’s daughter, Paivi Ylitalo, sharing smiles at Tuulia’s great aunt and uncle’s house in Oulu, Finland during her family’s vacation to Finland in the summer of 2006. Photo courtesy of Inga Koponen.

December 24, 2010. I high fived my grandpa for responding in English to something my little brother had said at the dinner table. My mom made us redo our high five for a photo and I could not help but laugh into the photograph. And my grandpa smiled.

Little did I know that smile would be the first and last smile I would ever see from him. And little did I know what was coming less than a year later.

November 22, 2011. My friend and her mom had walked me home after a sleepover at their place the night before, and I could not help but exchange confused looks with my friend as her mother and my parents discussed an accident involving my grandpa.

After they had left, my parents sat me down and told me the news. My grandpa had fallen off one of the high stools at my grandparents’ home and was left unconscious. My grandma was a disaster after phoning an ambulance and then my dad to tell us the news.

Luckily, my grandpa had recovered and was fine throughout the Christmas season. But in the new year, the same thing happened again. And this time he was not recovering.

I knew it was serious when my dad left behind everything to take care of his mother and help her cope for two weeks. And a rough two weeks it was.

February 9, 2012. I had gotten tired of praying and crying myself to sleep for the past two weeks and wanted God to make up his mind already: have my grandpa recover or take him to Heaven. And I finally got an answer – an unwanted answer.

Me and my grandfather recreating our high five with my grandma looking on from the back during our Christmas feast on Christmas Even in 2010 at my grandparents' home in Oulu, Finland.
Tuulia and her grandfather recreating their high five with her grandma looking on from the back during her family’s Christmas feast on Christmas Eve in 2010 at her grandparents’ home in Oulu, Finland. Photo courtesy of Inga Koponen.

Once again I locked myself into my bathroom and cried and cried.

I still have not quite recovered from the pain that came with losing both my great aunt and my grandpa and quite frankly, I do not think I ever will. But their deaths taught me two important lessons I wish I had learned before:

1. Never take your family for granted. EVER.

2. Your family is a gift. Cherish your family members and the times you get with them.

Before I left on the train with my dad from Oulu to Helsinki at the end of my family’s vacation in Finland last summer, I hugged my grandma tightly and cried as I told her just how much she meant to me.

I knew it could potentially be the last time I would ever be in her presence and I did not take a single moment for granted. And looking back on all of the memories made that summer, although there were tough times along the way, I cherish every one of them.

If you are lucky enough to have your extended family members in the same country, same state, same county, even same city as you, or even if not, do not take them for granted. You never know what will happen and when your last moment with them will be.

That being said, realize that your family is a gift and how fortunate you are to have people who love and care for you without conditions. Not everyone is fortunate enough to receive such a gift, so realize this beautiful gift you have been given and treat your family with care.

And cherish the times you get with them. Even the little ones. Some of my most cherished moments with my family are the ones in the midst of everyday life where we share laughs amongst the dinner table, through Skype with my older brother in college at Penn State or my grandparents, at silly comments, mispronunciations, burps in the middle of sentences, even in the midst of redoing a high five for a photograph.

So, take note of the little things and times with your family and “enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

Yes, there are going to be hard times. No, families are not meant to be perfect, they are meant to be real. Although it is difficult to love and feel grateful when hard times plague your relationship with your family, hard times will not last forever for there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

So, keep trekking on through the darkness of hard times and you will find the light. I did.

My grandma and dad’s cousin came to visit for two weeks amidst the new school year a few months after my great aunt’s passing, and those were a beautiful two weeks with hard goodbyes to give at the end.

I visited Finland with my mom for three weeks in July 2012 a few months after my grandpa’s passing and realized just how fortunate I am to have such beautiful family that have been helping my grandma cope with her new life.

And then last summer my brothers, my parents and I packed our bags for another three weeks in Finland in July. That summer vacation was not my favorite, but in spite of the little rough patches, I still had a wonderful time. And I shed many tears the last night at my grandma’s balcony of her apartment. And I did not take it for granted when I told her what could be our last goodbye.

My grandmother and I posing for a picture at my grandfather's grave site in  Oulu, Finland after cleaning it up and planting flowers there during my and my mother's trip to Finland in July 2012.
Tuulia’s grandmother and her posing for a picture at her grandfather’s grave site in Oulu, Finland after cleaning it up and planting flowers there during her and her mother’s trip to Finland in July 2012. Photo courtesy of Inga Koponen.

If you love your family members, tell them. And prove it. Show it. Visit the grave sites of your lost family members. It is okay to cry when you visit them. Plant flowers there. Take a picture there.

Do whatever you can to show your family members you care and that you know the value of being given such a gift. And do not take them for granted. Cherish every moment you get with them. Every single one of them.

September 15, 2013. After this column is finished, I am going to join my mother on a Skype call with her parents and then my older brother currently at college in Penn State. And you should go join your family for some quality time as well. Enjoy it. Cherish it. And do not take it for granted. You never know what will happen.