My Dad had a beautiful death. I did not think a death could be described that way but after witnessing and living through it with him that is how I would describe it. Dad was deeply peaceful and comforted by God’s presence. There were times before he was moved into palliative care where he was uncomfortable but this was only for a short while. Throughout his suffering at the end he showed tremendous bravery and dignity.
It was a normal work day that day when my parents called me. I was at my desk, two screens blazing, diligently reviewing documents after my daily caffeine dose. I answered the phone and scurried off into a small breakout room down the hallway.
“Yes Mum, what’s the latest?”
Dad had been admitted to hospital a week earlier with severe pain. His cancer had spread dramatically since his last, very recent check-up.
“I’ll let Dad tell you”, Mum said in a bold tone.
I knew this was it. My heart sank.
“Sweetheart, I don’t want to continue with the chemo. It only has a small chance of being effective and it’s only going to give me a bit more time. I’m electing to go into palliative care.”
Uncontrollable sobs followed from deep within me. This was the moment I’d been dreading. The illusion that Dad would live on longer than foretold, despite being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease which would end in cancer four years beforehand was gone.
“I’ll come home now”, I sobbed.
As I flew home that afternoon I knew I was about to fly into an intense emotional situation and one I’d never experienced before – the death of a parent.
Dad confronted what was happening head on and somewhat casually. I remember sitting in his hospital room when there was a short break between other visitors and Dad remarking he was glad for it so he could take the chance to have a shave. While Dad attended to his grooming my tears flowed intermittently. Dad became a little frustrated with my crying and told me to stop.
“Oh, don’t cry sweetheart – this happens to everyone”.
He then proceeded to continue with his shave.
This strength in dying and Dad’s lack of fear was a great gift.
I had some time alone with both Mum and Dad and we spoke about who would stand in for him when I got married. Dad also had a phone conversation with my now husband who I had only met a few weeks earlier. He spoke to him for about half an hour about topics to give him a sense of who he was and at the end of the conversation said to Matt, “I think you will be very good dancing partners through life” .
Over the next few days Dad had many visitors come to see him and bid him farewell. He remained in good humor, made jokes and entertained until he felt too weak to see anyone more than immediate family.
Then it got to the stage where Dad could no longer stay awake as he was too weak. It got late and my Mum and two younger brothers remained. I spent what seemed like a long time holding Dad’s hands with tears streaming intermittently down my cheeks.
Dad stopped breathing at 3:15am on Christmas Eve 2014. My Mum and two brothers said our final prayers and goodbyes and left the hospital. We were greeted on the way home by the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. I remember Dad telling me only a few months before that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Christmas Eve was hard. We cleaned the house in anticipation of visitors, welcomed several extended family members and started to prepare for the funeral. My youngest brother and I escaped the house on the pretence that we needed to get some coffee but in reality we were overwhelmed by the number of people arriving at our doorstep and needed to get out.
We attended the evening vigil for Christmas Eve and I became a weeping mess after they read out my Dad’s name on the deceased list. My younger brother comforted me by taking my out and giving me a hug and cracking a joke.
The weather the next day, Christmas Day, was glorious. My Mum and my two younger brothers decided we had to do something different to what we normally did on Christmas. So we took a road trip to a beach about two hours north of Mum’s place. The sea was the temperature of a bathtub and I remember bathing in it and thinking it was like floating in an ocean of warm sparkling champagne. Dad felt very close. It was beautiful.
Over the next few days my mind wandered back to times in the past – moments where Dad has truly shown great love. My brothers and I recounted some of these together while visitors brought food and flowers arrived. I was overwhelmed by all the love and sympathy that was shown. It was like living in a bubble of love while weeping in sorrow.
Some of the words of friends and family that I am thankful for at this time are, “Stay close”, “This will be a special time with your family” and my aunt’s reassurance that I should not be scared to be present at my Dad’s death. She assured me that it would be a “natural process”.
Over time my grief has changed or gone through different phases. For the first year or so after Dad’s death I went through phases of feeling Dad’s death in a really intense and raw way. In some ways he was more present that ever in these times as I would hear in my mind what he would say about situations I found myself in or commentaries he would have made about things that were happening in the world. I also found myself asking for Dad’s help in the mundane battles of the every day – asking him to fix issues I had with appliances, or help find my keys. I was amazed at the speed at which help came when I asked for it.
I spent the first two years after Dad’s passing mostly overseas. This at times I found excruciatingly difficult as I had some moments where I longed quite intensely to be home and in the places where Dad had been. I also longed to be with my Mum and my siblings. However, at the same time I think the intensity of the grief may have been lessened in some ways due to my being away.
Later, once I moved back to Australia, but not quite back to the city where I had lived in my childhood my grief manifested in other ways. I found I would have many memories of my childhood pop up and a deep sadness would accompany them. This sadness was about these moments having passed and Dad having passed on.
Then my grief was again different again and difficult when I moved back to my hometown of Brisbane. The smells, weather and wildlife sounds were those I had experienced during my childhood. The familiar sensory experiences would trigger my grief. I would remember being with Dad with the same atmosphere around and feel sad.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly this must have changed as I’ve now reached a space where I feel peaceful about the memories. I experience more joy rather than sadness when I recall them. I look forward to the future in building memories with my own children that have similarities to those I have of Dad – and perhaps even some at the same places my Dad loved.
If I were to give some words of comfort to someone who was about to confront the death of a parent for the first time I would tell them to take each moment as it comes. I would assure them that they would be led through the intensity. I would encourage them to absorb the beauty and love found in the process of death.
Are you experiencing grief of a loved one? I would love to hear about your own experiences of grief and loss.