Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Big Question: Death

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Have you had a death in the family lately?
If so, my sincerest sympathy.
I lost my dad a few years ago and it is very difficult; there are no simple words to comfort you.

Many of the people who read this blog or who read my writing in other places have asked me to write about death. Talking to children about death is one of those things that makes us feel all bunged up and fearful inside, me included. So remember as you read this, I'm not a superior parent in any way and nor do I have any magic bullets or tricks... I have my pain, loss, grief, my difficulties. I simply do not go back to the Old Time Religions to find comfort.

When I got the news that Dad had died, I was at my son's soccer game. My phone rang and Mom just told me. I remember kind of crying aloud NO! I remember things pausing and people looking at me for a few seconds. Then the shock set in and I don't really remember much. I honestly don't remember most of the people who were there for me at the soccer game (except for two lovely friends, who I will never forget). If you were one of the people there, please tell me because I appreciate the support that I got there!

One weird thing happened though. As I waiting for my son to finish playing those last few minutes of his game, after I called my husband, one of the moms came up to me saying with sadness I don't know what else to do, and she handed me a little envelope filled with arnica tabs. I learned later that that woman is a doctor of homeopathy. 

I do remember that no one offered to pray for my family, and I am grateful for that respect. But if they had, I wouldn't have minded much, because I realize something very key:  Those first moments of shock aren't in your hands. They are in the hands of the people around you. They will be the ones who initially feel completely powerless, completely lost, entirely aware that they are inadequate to the shock of that moment.

The next few hours are kind of a blur of activity to get from where I was to where I needed to be. We got to Dad's house and they had all been waiting for me as I had been quite a distance away and needed to gather up my people along the way. Dad was on a gurney thing. Still. My sisters and brother were nearly speechless. We were so silent. Still in shock, I guess. We just looked at each other and felt lost.

I started to tell them about having had an email exchange with Dad 36 hours before that moment and how I had written to him and he hadn't replied and I had thought that he had signed off and had gone to bed... Sadly it is thought that he must have died during that email exchange because it was clear that Dad had died while sitting at his computer and had been there for some time before his best friend found him.

I still think of that email exchange that Dad and I had that night because he and I were talking about music. I got my love of music from Dad, I'm sure. He always had music playing. He and I, in our emails, were sending youtube videos of Ray Charles back and forth. I had sent this one by Ray Charles to him and he hadn't replied...

How to experience my grief with my kids there? How to help them through the many conflicting feelings that we were experiencing? How to navigate the complexity of my family's dynamics through this loss?

Just a short while before he died on his birthday.
Here he is saying, "I don't feel 72; I feel 27!"
One thing that comforted all of us was the fact that we had spent time together, all of us, for Dad's birthday just days before he died. Knowing that we shared such loving and fun memories was incredibly helpful to all of us. Taking every effort to get together regularly, all of us with our separate busy lives, made it easier somehow to move forward.
Yes, I said that. Spending time with your loved ones really means something.

The next year was a mess. Dad's house and things all had to be dealt with. Going through his house and all of his things was painful and stressful and emotional for every one of us. Each of us handled it differently. My brother was angry alot. My sisters and I tended to talk quietly together, cry together and alone, and put our backs into the work of the house. But somehow it was okay, because that is what families do. Be together. Share the work. Be there. Give space. Find the laughter. Hold hands, hold heads, hold hearts. Recognize that everyone grieves differently.

At some point we each inherited a small amount of money from Dad's estate and house. Not much, but each of us found ways to use those few dollars in ways that we felt would have pleased Dad.
  • My youngest sister took my daughter to New York for a week of sightseeing and theater, lots of theater! Thanking Dad all along the way.
  • Jerry and I shared with friends whenever possible (as is our way) and then bought ourselves a camper and telescope. Dad loved our astronomy adventures so much, so spending a few dollars in this way felt wonderful.
  • Another sister did some traveling, which she enjoys tremendously and used to entertain Dad for hours with her travel stories.
  • My brother used his for more practical matters, as is his way.

Everything changes. Change is truly the only constant of life. You seldom get to prepare for it. So just live it. Move into it, into the future. Just feel it. Feel the loss. Make no effort to push it down unless you want to or feel the need to for some reason.

Live your life in such a way that you know you have loved fully and honestly. I think that is the real secret. Well, it's the only thing I know.

Dad and I at my wedding.

Some readers may be thinking Hey, you didn't tell us how to deal with death.

Ah, but I did:

  • Live your life fully
  • Make time for people and relationships in your life
  • Create celebrations and reasons to gather
  • Do everything in your power to connect with loved ones and find ways to enrich those connections
  • Tell people that you love them
  • Some parts of grief are completely out of your hands
  • Everyone grieves differently
  • The depth of feeling of the loss is a result of having loved well, so feel it
  • Share your grief with others
  • Allow others to comfort and care for you in ways that make sense to them and to you
  • Remember your loved one openly
  • Incorporate their life and memory into your today for as long as you want to or need to
  • Move forward at your own speed in your own way in your own time
  • Find ways to honor the one you have lost
  • Share the work.
  • Give space.
  • Hold hands, hold hearts.

My experience with losing people who are important to me is this:  I am grateful for the sincere effort to love one another while we live. This life is the one we have. Live in a way that makes sense, that reveres your relationships, and in a way that you have no regrets for what you did or did not do or say. Live with integrity, honesty, and love.

When a significant loss happens you can only move forward with gratitude for having had the good fortune to have had that beloved person in your life. Honor that in ways that make sense to you.

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  1. I'm sorry for your loss, Karen. I am glad that people who initially took care of you after you found out about your dad's death reacted in a way that was according to your way of life. I am glad that his dad caused you and your siblings spend time together, even though it was painful, and that you all could fulfill some dreams for yourselves. I'm sure your dad would have wanted that.

  2. Very well said! Thank you for sharing.

  3. You got me blubbering with this one. <3 I'm so, so sorry for the loss of your Dad. If you don't mind me saying so, I think 72 is too soon. There are no words. There is little comfort. There is just putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying when the sun peaks through the clouds--which seems to happen more and more the further the timeline moves away from the loss. There is the love of family and friends.

  4. Your dad looks very happy with his cake :) Thanks for sharing this, I am currently in the middle of dealing with my six year old's anxiety about death.

    1. What I love about that picture of Dad with the cake is that he switched the two numbers around saying "I feel like I am 27!"

  5. I'm so sorry for your loss. =( I know it will happen eventually, but it's so hard to think about loosing either one of my parents. I'm so glad you had such a good relationship with him and that you have the support of your sisters. Hugs.

  6. Thank you for sharing, Karen. Very timely as my dad passed away last week. We are staying with very religious relatives at the moment so are discreetly trying to discuss death with the kids.

    1. Catherine, I'm so sorry for your loss.
      I hope you are finding love and support where ever you are
      Please feel free to email me if you want to talk. You can find my email address under the tab under the picture at the top of my blog on a tab called “Contact Me”.

      I remember how difficult it was for my kids when Dad died. Not because of their own grief, though they loved Dad. It was hard for them to see the depth of my own sadness. To this day they don't like it whenever I listen to that song the I mentioned in this post “Song for You” by Ray Charles...yet I still listen...
      They have said, “Mom, we don't like it when you listen to this song.”
      And I reply, “I know you don't, Honey. But one day I think you will understand why I still want to listen to it. It reminds me of Dad in a nice way and sometimes I really need that.”
      So they have learned a lot from it, I think. And so have I.


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