Death of a Loved One, Part 1: Fatherless Child

My father died at age 82. He had not been able to swallow properly for years, due, we think, to a series of small strokes that created symptoms diagnosed first as lymphoma, then as Alzheimer’s, then finally as a series of small strokes. His health, mobility, and engagement in the world around him-due to the strokes, the inevitable prostate problems, the hearing loss that started when he was in the army and progressively got worse, and other physical health issues, as well as a series of misfortunes that he could not master-declined for decades as we watched helplessly.

When he fell (shortly after he and my mother moved across the country to live with my youngest sister and her husband), was taken by ambulance to the hospital, then quickly developed pneumonia, any hope of him ever going back to his new home began to wither. He ended up having a tube inserted in his stomach through which he was fed a liquid diet. This caused some problems, and he didn’t cope with it well. He took to stealing food he could not eat. Speech therapy did not help the swallowing problem, which got worse. He went to a rehabilitation center where he had a small room and piloted his walker further than anyone thought possible for an emaciated elder. The pneumonia came back; he returned to the hospital; he made very short visits home; he gradually found it too difficult to speak, and kept unplugging his G-tube. He kept his iron grip for a long time, and his stubborn will, but was clearly more and more exhausted.

Eventually, when his VA and Medicare inpatient benefits were tapped out, he was moved to a skilled nursing facility. During all of this, one by one, my other siblings and I, and several of his grandchildren, trekked to Indiana to see him. You would think we would have been ready for the text one Saturday, shortly after he was moved to the skilled nursing facility, saying his lungs were filling with fluid, he was being made comfortable, and my youngest sister was by his bedside. He was not expected to survive this, and he didn’t. My mother took a fall around midnight that night, was checked out at the ER, and did not make it to my father’s deathbed. On Sunday night-the following night-he let go. Two nurses were present as he simply, finally, stopped breathing. My sister had gone to greet another sister who had just landed at the airport. My brother’s flight had already been booked for the following Friday.

You would think we would have been ready for this, after the long decline and the helpless witnessing of it, but you would be wrong. You would think that, as a trained grief counselor, I would be prepared, but I wasn’t. Our anticipatory grief did not prepare us.

I’ve come to think that there are two things in life no one is ever, ever ready for: the birth of a child, and the death of a loved one. No matter how we prepare, it’s impossible to really be ready. And in so many ways, we were not. After so long holding our breaths, collectively and individually, exhaling was neither smooth nor easy.

Grieving, Day 1: I found out at 6:45 on a Monday morning that my father had let go. My sisters had decided, since my exhausted mother had gone to bed and asked not to be disturbed, to tell her in the morning and then tell the rest of us. During a phone conversation with my youngest sister, I could feel my father with me. I could feel his hand on my shoulder, and hear him telling me he was happy, and see him as a younger and still robust man at midlife. I told her this. We took some comfort from that. I offered to help with tasks I could do at a distance. I called in to my day job. And then I stayed home and did the tasks: contacting the churches my father and mother had attended over the years and asking that he be remembered at Mass, calling the alumni association he and I both share membership in, emailing aunts and uncles. The calls, unsurprisingly, were the hardest. I took crying breaks and got hugs from my husband. Trying for some semblance of normality, I scheduled new clients who called my private practice number. I took a longish walk and scheduled a dental appointment. I created an altar with candles representing my parents and the rest of my family-so many candles that the flowers I had put in a small vase wilted. In the early evening, I saw a client, giving me a break from my sad thoughts. I texted my daughters and talked to my mother, my brother, another sister, and answered emails. I watched TV and ate dinner with my husband. Eventually, I tired out and went to bed. I couldn’t bear to not be busy. I couldn’t settle until I went to sleep.

Grieving, Day 2: I called into my day job again and let my supervisor know I would take the full four days allotted for bereavement. I felt heavy and sad, but not like crying, and wondered if I could function at my day job later in the week. All the motivation I had on Day 1 seemed to have drained away. The thought of being out in the world beyond my neighborhood was almost unbearable. I managed to answer emails, forgot to call a potential client, took a walk, spent too much time on Facebook. I got through a couple of easy tasks, and listened to music. I was grateful I had no evening client and that no one called me, but I tried to follow up on things that had nothing to do with my father’s death. I threw out the empty candle cups and wilted flowers on the altar, and found some photos I liked featuring my father. I arranged them on the altar and lit a couple more candles, along with some cookies (he loved cookies!). The day was sunny and beautiful, but I felt grey, leaden. In contrast to the day before, the effort of doing felt burdensome. My sisters texted the rest of us siblings asking if we wanted jewelry made with Dad’s ashes; I chose a ring with his birthstone. I meditated, ate, watched TV, turned down my husband’s offer to take me out for a meal. I didn’t do anything I didn’t care to deal with.

Grieving, Day 3: I woke up feeling a little lighter and more motivated, and thought, maybe I need some normalcy. My husband and I went to breakfast, and I was OK. I talked with the one sister I hadn’t spoken with yet; we agreed that yes, this was hard, but we were managing. My husband chauffeured me around on a few errands. I was fine, almost. I even scheduled a new client. And then I walked by the cheese and salami section in Trader Joe’s and was not fine. I was literally heartsore as I suddenly remembered shopping for goodies, for cheeses and salamis, cookies and crackers, that I would pack into a gift box for my father to mark special occasions, until I knew he could no longer eat them. And it was only early afternoon, with most of the day ahead to navigate.

Every Day After That: After a while, my grief went underground. I found myself compartmentalizing Dad’s death and was surprised at how well I did it. Eventually, almost three months after he died, we converged in his California hometown with many of his siblings and a few family friends to celebrate him. We had a Mass at a lovely chapel; one of my sisters gave us all permission to cry louder when she broke down during a reading. Three of us carried the gifts to the altar; I was one of them, and although I did not have to say a word, tears ran down my face. I trembled through the entire service. Later, at the house, I gave the first eulogy, and almost got through it without crying. My brother engineered a toast with whiskey. The next day, thoroughly tired out, my siblings and I joined in an Easter egg hunt. We desperately needed the laughter, and all felt better afterward. And then we went home.

Life goes on. I still feel my father’s presence sometimes, mostly at odd moments. At times, I’ve felt his spirit brush by me and heard a whisper of his chuckle. I think he’ll be visiting me for a long time, and I’m grateful for that. I am still learning to be a fatherless child.

Speak Your Mind


311 SW 2nd Street
Corvallis, OR 97333
(541) 262-0080

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.