Let me start by saying I am so grateful that my dear dad lived a full life and passed away comfortably at home at the age of 83. He was an extraordinary man, had a 49 year inspiring marriage to my mom, 3 daughters, 4 grandchildren and asuccessful career. He found joy and humor everyday, even as he struggled to breathe in his final months with end stage COPD. My dad measured success in the quality of his relationships with his family and closest friends. His legacy is very rich. So this is an unremarkable story and best-case scenario for experiencing loss, except I was not prepared.
I moved away from home shortly after university and while remaining emotionally close with my dad, I didn’t see him more than 30 days a year for the last 25 years. Early days when letters were still a thing my dad would write letters and notes. We would speak on the phone of course, but the physical distance did not allow for the daily anecdotes and the goings on in each others lives, the way my sisters enjoyed with my dad.
We would look at the last 10 years and say these were gifts as he was not in great health, had triple bypass surgery, many trips to the hospital and his last 2 years he was mostly home bound. I knew someday he would slip away and I certainly felt like I was mentally prepared. Virtually every time the phone rang in the last few months before his death I expected it to be news of his passing. I was the one who wanted to be practical about arrangements before his passing as my mom and sisters were in the daily trenches of his home care.
Then the call came from my sister “He is gone sis” she sobbed. The shock in that moment is indescribable. Feeling like I needed to be the strong one for my mom, sisters and children I went into administration mode. I offered to do the eulogy before he passed away, but it was a monumental task under the cloud of grief immediately following his death. I focused on trying to do a eulogy that would honor such a great man and this gave me some purpose, but I wish I had prepared for months not the 36 hours before his funeral.
Everything I thought I would feel or want in the days and weeks following his death turned out not to be true. No matter how prepared we think we are, we are not at all prepared for the waves of emotions that consume us. I looked for books and blogs about death and there is a lot out there. Trying to find comfort inside a prescriptive 5 stages of grief process was useless.
How I got through the first several weeks was to cry, it is an important release and does clear out some of the sadness and give some relief. Surround yourself with loved ones and accept help. I am a very insular person by nature but I craved being around people who knew my dad. Talking about my dad to anyone who knew him but especially my mom and sisters helped. Hearing stories from extended family helped. We would talk for hours and this gave us comfort.
Here is what I would tell friends on how to get through the worst moments. Look at pictures and old letters and reflect on the memories. Don’t hide from the grief, let it happen. Don’t make any important decisions for 3 months because you are not capable. Allow yourself days where you don’t get out of bed those first few weeks. Grief can be a selfish emotion, as we are processing how this is affecting us. My dad was suffering greatly in his final months so reminding myself that he was not suffering or having a particularly great quality of life, helped pull me out of some dark days. When you are ready, get back to life but start some new routines and traditions that help you feel close to your loved one. My dad took up art in his 60’s as a hobby and did some extraordinary paintings. I don’t have a creative bone in my body, but I started a weekly art class. It was a lovely way to connect with my dad.
What I would do differently? I would have talked more with my dad on what he wanted to see happen after he died. What traditions did he want us to continue? What did he want us to do for my mom on her birthday going forward? What did he want his grandchildren to know? I would have recorded our talks or any scenario where my dad was speaking. My favorite thing to watch now is a video my sister took of him on the phone a few weeks before he died. We all wish we had more of his voice.
9 months later what I know to be true is that the dark cloud of pain does pass. We have lived through some of the firsts like birthdays and holidays and the build up is always worse than the actual day. In the weeks following his death we would say that it was hard to believe that everybody goes through this, and how do they survive? I have guilt and regret for not spending more time with him and someday I hope to forgive myself, but mostly I feel so blessed to have had such an amazing father.
While I wasn’t prepared for the actual moment he passed, I am prepared to live the life he wished for me and honor his legacy.