Four months ago, I spent four days and nights sitting vigil with my family while my dad died. (Technically he was my stepdad but he was a dad to me and I have found that many people immediately dismiss any type of closeness and relationship when you put the word “step” in front of anything. I used to worry it was disrespectful or hurtful to my “real” dad but I got over it. Anyway, moving on.) Death is something that everyone experiences in one way or another at some point, but I have been lucky enough to never experience it up close until now. In those four days and in the last four months I have learned a few things.
1. I feel bonded to those who were there. I am the oldest of four and when the decision was made to call hospice all of us descended on my mom’s house and pretty much never left. My dad’s siblings and father and some of my cousins were rotating in too.
It was extremely hard to be there and watch what was happening. It was even harder to try to pull myself away to sleep or stop home to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to miss a minute of what I knew to be some of his last.
I felt such a responsibility to him. I wanted him to know that we were there, doing our absolute best to take care of him, and that he wasn’t alone. We were all with him, surrounding his bed, when he took his last breath. We all finished the battle together.
2. I am so glad I let my kids share in his passing. My kids spent one of the four days hanging around the house with us. My daughter sat in a chair just watching him, giving me updates about what she thought he was feeling. My son held his hand and read him a book about Elvis. He had gotten the book at the library to show my dad and when I mentioned that my dad could still hear him, he ran to get his book. My baby sang songs with me to him and was there for the few minutes he woke up enough to give out his last kisses and I love you’s.
They also came over immediately after he died. They got to see him in a fairly normal setting and they got to see he was gone. They got to feel what they needed to feel without everyone watching. Most importantly to me they got to see all of us grieving and know that it was okay to be sad and it was okay to cry.
3. All the movies make sense. You know the scenes where someone acts out completely irrationally and over the top after getting some bad news or heart break? They always seemed so stupid before. I now get it! Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to suddenly start smashing dishes but I do understand the impulse.
In the first month or so I had to stop myself from making big life changes. I suddenly wanted to move, quit my job, cut my hair, just do anything to change. I picked fights with my husband. I debated tattoos. I just needed something on the outside to give justification for the complete chaos I felt on the inside.
4. I am still shocked at how physically painful grief is. I honestly had no idea that it would actually hurt. It wasn’t a metaphorical pain. It was (and is) an actual pain. Sometimes it is sharp, sometimes an ache, sometimes a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to rip it out of me and avoid feeling that way ever again.
5. Death became real. Someone is now missing from a daily part of my life. This means it could happen to others! Death is no longer an abstract concept for me and I hate that. I hate that I now have more fear of losing people than ever before.
6. It doesn’t actually hurt everyday. I do think about my dad on a daily basis, or at least I think I do. It is often enough. Sometimes the sadness just catches me off guard, like a sucker punch. But other times, it just is what it is.
This past weekend I watched a movie with my mom that he would have hated. It was a touching story about life and had all sorts of accents. When it was over we imitated all the things he would have said if he had been there and we laughed. It feels good to remember him and talk about him. That in itself is a relief. We can keep him in our lives even if it is just with reminiscing.