When I last posted, my father had experienced a massive stroke and was on life support. The next morning, October 11, the medical staff removed his breathing tube. They weren’t sure if he’d breathe for a while on his own, but he wasn’t able to take even one breath. Still–some of you will already know this, but I didn’t–his heart continued to beat for almost ten minutes before he passed.
My sisters, who both live fairly near where my dad lived, were able to be with him. They had to twist the nurse’s arm, because of COVID regulations, but I guess that for now the virus isn’t too bad in the local community, so she agreed they could both come in. She even gave my sister Debra a big hug because she couldn’t stop sobbing when my father died.
If you’d asked me a few months ago how I would feel if my father died, I would have said, well, kind of sad, but I have distanced myself from him quite a bit and, well, it won’t be such a big thing. Ha! Little did I know!
I’m currently describing grief as a rollercoaster because it’s a much wilder and crazier ride than I ever expected. Sometimes it is bringing me up, up, up, to a high point where I think I have a bit of perspective. Then it sends me plunging down, down, down, and flips me sideways and maybe even upside down before I realize what is happening.
Or perhaps it’s not the best metaphor. I actually like rollercoasters. Grief, hm, not so much.
The first few days I felt sad and sentimental. I went through photo albums, looking at old pictures and trying to remember the sound of my father’s laugh. He was a good-natured person and laughed a lot. One of his nicest traits was that he never took himself too seriously. Perhaps related to that, he never stayed mad more than about two minutes.
I also kept telling Alexa to play the music that he liked to listen to. Willy Nelson. Kenny Rogers. Dolly Parton. And more than that, classical music. He’d listen to Mozart and move his hand as though he were conducting the orchestra. And opera, he loved opera. When I was in college, he used to have season tickets to the opera in the big city near where we lived. Often he took one of his many (too many) girlfriends, but sometimes he took me. I remember seeing Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland in Norma, many years ago; it was brilliant. My sister Debra took him to see La Boheme with her in LA a few years back. She said he cried and wasn’t even embarrassed about it.
He studied piano for ten years when he was young, and even though he didn’t really keep it up, he could still sit down at a piano, and his fingers remembered how to play a number of pieces. He also had a good ear and could improvise well.
So I spent a lot of time reminiscing those first few days. Also more time sleeping than usual. Apparently grieving is tiring.
I did know to expect a range of different emotions–not so much from experience but because friend had told me it would be that way. I tried to prepare for that by imagining myself going inside my internal house (that funny house by the sea where all my parts and my inner child and my emotions live) and opening up all the windows.
“Okay, heads up everyone,” I told the residents of the house. “You are all welcome. Anyone who needs to express something, please step up.” I opened up the doors and managed to keep an air of acceptance as various emotions (sadness, regret, confusion, frustration) flew by. I think they used the opportunity to put on roller skates and go a little wild.
When I saw E for a therapy session a few days later, I was sad but calm. I told her stories about my dad. I told her about the open windows and doors in my internal house, and she approved of the idea. She reminded me that having a parent die is an enormous life transition, no matter our relationship to that parent.
My sisters were very busy with the logistics related to my father’s death–but not a funeral, of course. In these pandemic days, we can’t have a funeral, which just sucks. We can’t gather together and share stories and hug one another and hold one another up. So I decided, while they were busy with the assisted living home and the bank and the coroner’s office, that I would organize an online memorial.
Though my dad used to be a very social, out-going person, that changed over the years. And besides, I didn’t want a lot of people I didn’t know much on a Zoom call. I wanted something personal. So I set up a Zoom call for a week after he died, just the four of us siblings (three sisters and my brother, the youngest) and our immediate families. Because my dad had complicated relationships with
some all of the family, I also told people there would be no pressure and no judgment if they didn’t want to attend. And you know what? That made it really nice, just a small gathering among those who wanted to come: my sisters, Debra and Cynthia, and my brother Rick, my husband and Cynthia’s, my two sons, my one son’s girlfriend, two of my nieces. One of my nieces has a three-year-old, so my dad’s great-grandson was even there part of the time–and wonderfully so, because he charmed all of us by saying, “Everyone on the computer is my friend!”
Right after the online memorial, I felt better than I had the whole week. The connection to family was rich and tender. My sister Cynthia, who had really had the most responsibility for helping my dad in recent years and who has been very burnt out, thanked the rest of us for reminding her of the things she had loved about my dad; before that, she was mostly just feeling relief and aggravation. I loved how no one judged her for saying she was relieved to be done with helping him, but only appreciated her for everything she had done for him.
I felt genuinely uplifted after the call. But by the next day, things turned really difficult. After spending a lot of time remembering the good things about my father, I started to regret that I had distanced myself so much from him in recent years. Why hadn’t I visited him more often? Or called more frequently? Why hadn’t I helped him more (though he lived far from me, I still could have helped out more). Why was I so distant to an aging, lonely man? A lot of the time I was lonely myself, why didn’t I connect more?
I didn’t connect more because I judged him. I judged him harshly for the mistakes in his life that I knew he made. I judged him harshly for things I felt he MIGHT have done to me, even though I don’t have proof and lack clear memories. Who am I anyway to have been so judgmental of him? It’s not as though I haven’t made mistakes myself? Why haven’t I been more compassionate?
This line of thinking sent me into a tailspin. I felt so angry and disgusted with myself. This in turn led me to kind of collapse inward on myself again. I spent a lot of time in bed. I had nightmares. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I couldn’t concentrate. Literally the only thing I did for days on end was paper crafting. It felt undemanding and flexible and didn’t mind if I lost my place in the middle of a project.
By the time I saw E again, a week after the last visit, I was in a very low place. I think she was surprised. She’d seen me coping so much better a week before.
“Think about your internal house. What about Grace and Forgiveness? They must live there too? Surely Grace and Forgiveness will suggest that you don’t need to be so hard on yourself?”
“Ah you know, ” I told her, “when you open all the doors and windows, you never know what will happen. First, Grace and Forgiveness went outside for a walk by the ocean and got carried off by a sneaker wave. And then, with all the windows open, the whole house filled up with fire ants.”
E laughed, as she often does when I tell her what happens in my house. But she was warm and encouraging and supportive, which is really what I needed the most.
And what I needed second most, I guess, was information. She lent me two books on grief. I am reading them both, a few pages a day. I find it comforting to learn that whatever crazy thing I am experiencing is, in fact, pretty normal. And what I am really appreciating are the many suggestions for ways of processing grief. I am just beginning to experiment with them, and I suppose that’s what I’ll be writing about in the coming days.
Meanwhile, I’m still hanging on–I haven’t yet fallen out of the rollercoaster, and I don’t intend to.