It was a warm summer day and the birds were singing outside an open window with a soft breeze coming into the room. I walked into our spare bedroom to see how my father was doing. He looked up at me with accepting eyes and whispered “Thank You”. Less than two hours later he was dead.
As I sat on our front porch watching the wind blow through the trees, waiting for the Sheriff and Coroner to arrive, I thought of the horrendous battle he had waged with a rare form of cancer - (I would post the photo, but it’s rather gruesome) - I thought of his instinctive desire to live. When he thanked me that morning I could sense that he knew he had lost the battle. He knew the time had come, and he accepted it with dignity, strength and grace. He knew he would be dead shortly, and I couldn’t help but wonder how that felt. That knowingness that ones life will soon be over and the incapacity one has to change it, is difficult for all of us. Yet he seemed to be at peace.
Mankind has an instinctive desire to live. Even though death has been a part of our existence for thousands of years now, it is still difficult to accept. There is a part of us that wants to keep on living. If you were guaranteed a healthy body and a clear functioning mind, how long would you want to live? A hundred years? Two hundred? Forever?
Regardless of our religious belief, if we are emotionally healthy, death is still viewed as an enemy. We will seek medical attention when seriously ill in hopes of restoring our health and prolonging our life. If a loved one has a serious disease we seek out every form of medical aid, traditional and non-traditional in hopes of finding a cure, hoping to prolong their life as long as humanly possible. Letting go is painfully difficult.
Big Sis and I are part of a large Texas Family. We had large family reunions that got smaller over time. My Father was one of 10 children; which created many cousins and their families. Those original ten are all gone now as are my grandparents; and many cousins. I’ve lost so many family members, and more friends than I wish to count to this enemy we call death, and it never gets any easier.
The grieving process is pretty much the same for all humans, regardless of race or social status. If it’s an unexpected death the early reactions are: shock, disbelief, denial, and emotional numbness, followed by the feelings of guilt. “I should never have bought little Johnny that bicycle.” “I should have made him go to the doctor sooner” or “made her take better care of her health”, “If only I hadn’t moved the family to the city.” And so it goes.
Anger is another normal part of the grief process. It may be anger at doctors and nurses, feeling that they could have done more. We can even feel angry at the departed one for not doing something sooner, for not avoiding a dangerous situation, or for not taking better care of themselves. Angry over the many things in this world that takes our loved ones too soon. We can even be angry at a lost spouse for leaving us with the burden of having to work and raise children alone. Then…we feel guilty for being angry. This is all normal.
Because I was with my father when he died; I was the one that pulled the sheet over his head. I was 26 years old. For years after that I would have nightmares that I had pulled the sheet up while he was still alive. It’s odd how the brain works through these things.
Regardless of the loss, grief is a normal reaction to a tragic situation and one should be allowed to go through the grieving process in his or her own way. However, danger arises when stagnation sets in, when the grief-stricken person is unable to become reconciled to the reality of the situation.
Beware of using medications or alcohol to cope with grief. They prolong the grieving process by suppressing the emotions we need to face and deal with. Loving friends and family members can compassionately help the survivor to work through their emotions. Be patient. Let them express their feelings as often as they need to in the early days. In time, acceptance will set in and they will move forward with life.
Some feel they have to “be strong” so they hold their feelings in. However, this isn’t healthy either. Repressing our feelings can be harmful both physically and emotionally. It is far healthier to release our grief. Crying is a natural expression of emotions and can help relieve the pressure we may be feeling. At first the sadness may be overwhelming. As you move through your daily and weekly routine you may cry at the most unexpected times. Don’t feel embarrassed. It’s all part of the grieving process so allow yourself time to move through it.
Talking to a compassionate friend helps us to understand our feelings and deal with them. It can help us put our feelings into proper perspective. Some like to keep a journal from day to day. Writing down feelings is another very effective way of releasing them.
Listen to your body and give it the rest and proper nutrition it needs. While grieving can be tiring on the body, if we honor the process, we can prevent getting ill ourselves. Accept the help that friends offer. They can’t stop your pain or bring your loved one back; but they can help with house or yard work, cooking or shopping, in the process we are allowing them to express their love for us. That expression of love also helps us to heal.
HOW CAN OTHERS HELP?
· Be available. Not just the first few days but for months afterward.
· Listen. Some need to talk about their loved one. The illness or accident, or their feelings surrounding the event. Don’t feel you have to provide answers or solutions. Just listen. Some people need to process things out loud to understand their feelings and move past them, or to make decisions. They may say things that are unreasonable, but this too is normal. My suggestion is not to correct them. Just listen. Unless they are a threat to themselves, then we might need to do more than just listen.
· Assure them that they did what they could. That the sadness, anger, guilt, etc. is normal.
· Take the initiative to invite them to go places with you and your family. Have them over for a meal. Go to the beach. Go for a hike in the mountains.
· Be patient and understanding. Their emotions will be on a roller coaster ride for a while. Don’t pressure them to stop grieving. Let them cry. Cry with them if you want to. Don’t say you know how they feel, even if you have experienced something similar. Our emotions, issues, coping abilities are all different.
· Send them a card, or write them a loving letter. If they are religious, share with them the hope the Bible promises for those that have died.
I knew my father was dying a slow painful death. He had a large 8" in diameter tumor on the left side of his neck. The surgeon removed it, but previous radiation (that didn't work) left the skin too thin and fragile to close up the wound. I could see the tendons and muscles in his neck. He would have breakthrough bleeds as the cancer continued to devour the tissue. I would clean and cover the wound daily. The surgeon told me to be prepared - that the cancer could eat through his jugular vein and he would bleed out. I had a washtub and an old blanket just in case. But, how were we supposed to prepare ourselves emotionally for that?
A bit of history - Prior to modern medicine, my Dad's father died from a large tumor on his neck that ate through the jugular vein and he blead out. Of the 10 kids, our father was his fathers main caretaker beside his mother. Therefore, that was in my fathers memory as the tumor on the side of his neck progressed.
The hospital had done all they could and wanted to transfer him to another facility where they would simply make him “comfortable” until the last. One of the hardest conversations I have ever had in my life was when I had to ask him to choose the place where he wanted to die. A nursing facility or my home? Thankfully he chose my home. The thought of my father dying without me there to comfort him was more than I wanted to bear. His love had always been there for my sister, brother and me, now it was our turn to be there for him. He was at my home for 10 days which allowed the family members to come and visit with him. He died while I held his hand.
It’s been almost 42 years since my father’s death and every year on the anniversary of his death I notice that I feel unusually melancholy. When I realize the month it is, then I understand why the feelings are there and I honor them by acknowledging them rather than suppressing them. I will think of Dad more during that time of year. I will acknowledge the tremendous loss I feel by not having him in my life. Then I will remind myself of the biblical promise that there will be a "resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous". In other words our Loving Creator will eventually right all wrongs.
I think about his love and the sacrifices Dad made for us girls growing up without a Mother in our life. I thank him for the training he gave me and the lessons in life he taught me. I even remember some of the loving discipline I received when I would "mouth-off". Which was frequent.
When someone tells me that I am a lot like my Dad, I consider it to be one of the greatest complements I could ever receive. I get comfort by thinking about the hope I have of someday seeing him again in the future.
We never truly “get over” the loss of a loved one. We just learn how to deal with it more gracefully as time goes on.
(Dedicated to my father J. C. Cline, who died July 25, 1980, at the young age of 55)