As I made the hour drive to my parents’ house, all I could think is, I’m not ready, I need more time.
My dad had battled cancer for almost a year and a half. Earlier that morning, I received a call at work from my mom. It was the call I had been waiting for, but dreading all the same. The hospice nurse was saying we had about a week.
Almost from the time of his diagnosis, I knew there was only one way this was going to end. There is plenty of information about his type of cancer on the Internet, and I, of course, researched it. A lot. How much he knew or chose to believe, I don’t know. I do know he never gave up hope and he never gave up fighting.
I don’t think that I dealt with the fear of losing my dad in a very healthy way. Sure, I prayed for him. I asked my friends to keep him in their prayers. When they asked about him, I could give them the latest medical update, tell them how his mood was, how much I admired his strength and determination. I could talk about all the amazing things God was doing for our family through my dad’s cancer. But, I couldn’t talk about how I felt. Because I was trying so very hard not to feel anything.
I drowned myself in busyness – work, school, family…
Sometimes we had victories over the cancer. Almost immediately after he was diagnosed, one of his vocal cords became paralyzed, and he was unable to use his voice. He “spoke” in almost a whisper. I had given up hope of ever hearing his voice again. Then, unexpectedly, a medical procedure gave him his voice back. It wasn’t exactly the same, but it felt like music to my ears. It was beautiful. I cried, I was so filled with whole-hearted joy for him.
There were also many defeats. He was allergic to one of the chemo drugs and almost died early on. He frequently battled pneumonia. The cancer spread to more and more areas of his body. His pain kept increasing. His other vocal cord became paralyzed and there was nothing that could be done this time. Worse than him losing his ability to use his voice, he could also no longer eat regular food. He had to feed himself through a feeding tube.
But he did it. Because he didn’t want to give up. He didn’t want to give in to the cancer. He didn’t want to leave his family. He worried about my mom, he worried about my brother and I and our families. He worried about events he would be missing in the coming months, and the ones years down the road. He didn’t worry so much about himself. He kept fighting for us, even though it meant prolonging his pain.
The hospice nurse was right about the amount of time he had left. That first day, he was still able to be part of conversations. But soon, his consciousness slipped away, and then days later, his life did, too.
I was with him when he died. I remember watching his chest rise and fall for hours and hours over those few days. And then, right after, continuing to watch, waiting for his chest to rise again, hoping… but it never did. But, for the first time in months, he looked like my dad. He looked like the man I remembered. Free of pain. At peace. And that had been my prayer for him for so long – that whatever happened, he would be at peace.
I sat with him until it was time for them to take him away. As a person of faith, I knew it wasn’t “him” anymore, but I couldn’t leave his side.
I miss him terribly. I feel like there is this pain in my heart all the time. I go to work, I go to class, I make plans. I do all the things I’m supposed to do. But I feel stuck. Things aren’t as they should be. My dad isn’t here anymore. And that makes me angry. Not at my dad; he fought so hard to live. Not at God; He blessed my family greatly during a difficult time. It also makes me so sad. My dad went through an amazing transformation during his illness and I still had so much to learn from him. If only there had been more time…
I know that grieving is a process and it takes time. I also know that I won’t ever “get over” his death – I will just learn to adapt to the loss. I’ve started seeing a counselor to help me work through my grief so that I don’t stay stuck. I expect that this will be very helpful for me, especially as several big “firsts” come and go, as well as a major life event that is just around the corner. Being able to process this with someone neutral, free of judgment or expectation will hopefully bring a sense of relief, maybe even peace.
The most immediate benefit I’ve experienced with counseling has been simply having a place to talk about my dad. I struggle with how he has disappeared from conversations. No one talks about him. My understanding is that this happens often following a loss and that it is likely out of concern and good intentions. I even find myself doing the same thing – being careful not to bring him up around others if I think it may make them sad or uncomfortable. But, he was so important to me, and sometimes it feels like he is being forgotten – or worse, that he never existed at all. Having that one place and that one person where I know I can safely bring him up has eased an inner tension I hadn’t expected to feel. I believe this will help me feel less stuck, too.
If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one and feel stuck, I encourage you to reach out to your EAP to speak to a counselor. The support of family and friends is invaluable. But sometimes it helps having someone outside our normal support network to lean on. Please consider it.
Heather B joined Empathia in 2004 and is a Communications Specialist. She has a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Christian Studies through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.