I thought I was prepared.

After all, for the past two years, my father had been living with Stage IV colon cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and kidney failure. That’s a lot for an 87 year old. But when my stepmother called me on the phone the other night, I could tell immediately that I was about to hear the worst news possible, and I realized I wasn’t prepared after all.

In the past two years, I’ve made four trips to Florida on what I assumed were “last time” visits. But my Dad’s will to live kept trumping the frailty of his body.  Even though I knew he was living on borrowed time, I was expecting him to keep pulling miracles out of his hat, keep surprising us with unexpected rallies and recoveries.  When he was hospitalized briefly two months ago, I contemplated making another trip down, but decided against it. I had a lot going on, the tickets were expensive…yadda yadda.  I would wait, I thought, wait until November. And indeed I did make a trip in November,  but it was to help my stepmother make arrangements for his cremation. I said my goodbyes, but only to his body lying still and cold in a makeshift casket.

It was slightly strange being in Florida alone with my stepmother. She has been my Dad’s chief caregiver throughout his long illness, even as she works a full time job in retail, and for that I was so grateful. But I felt as if I were the representative from the first part of my Dad’s life, the almost 50 years he spent married to my mother, his high school sweetheart, while Sharon stood for his Second Act – the new life he embarked upon in his mid-sixties, moving to Florida, marrying a woman two decades younger, cultivating new hobbies (golf, poker) and new friends. We had completely different memories of this man we were putting to rest, and we were trying to reconcile that with the reality of our loss.

Meanwhile, back at home, my mother deals with her own private grief, one not even acknowledged by society. The break up of their marriage was not by her choice, and though she had come to some sort of terms with it in the ensuing 25 years, there was still a large part of her heart that belonged to that young man she fell in love with in the early 1940’s, the one to whom she devoted four decades of her life.

As for me, I find myself speeding through the stages of grief.  Those few days in Florida had a tinge of unreality, as if I were going through the motions without any sense of rhyme or reason. Then I started to feel angry – first with everybody around me who were oblivious to my sadness and continued about their trivial pursuits as if everything in the world was normal, and then with my Dad, who had once again taken me by surprise like he did 25 years ago when he packed up and left our family to start his new life.

Now, two weeks later, there is a veil of sadness inside me, one that washes over me at odd times. Like when I see his handwriting on a box of tools still sitting in my mother’s garage. When I look at the wedding picture of he and my mother that I keep on the mantle.  When I drive by a Walmart Store, where my Dad worked during his retirement. When I see his phone number in the Favorites list on my phone.

When I see my grandson, who will never know this great-grandfather who would have loved him.

I am no stranger to death. In the past few years I have lost my in-laws, a beloved uncle and aunt, and three elderly neighbors of whom I was inordinately fond. I thought I knew what grief was all about, was almost smug about my ability to handle it.

But the loss of a parent is something different, and I think it’s especially so for an only child.

I wasn’t prepared for it at all.


15 thoughts on “Preparation

  1. Oh Becca, I’m so sorry that you’ve lost your dad. It is indeed difficult to lose a parent and I doubt we’re ever ready even when they’ve been sick for a long time. I send you my prayers, hope, and the peace for your own life well lived.

  2. It’s always the smallest things that seem to bring them back, isn’t it? Like the handwriting… I’m so sorry for your loss. We’re never prepared, never. Sending prayers and love your way.

  3. My mother has been gone for 10 years and I still cannot erase her email address from my contact list in yahoo. I rarely come across it but the few times I do, it’s a jolt.

  4. Oh, Becca, I don’t think I’ve ever been known someone who was fully prepared, even though — like you — they’d gone through all the “end” things. Loss hangs like a thick, heavy cloud — partly dark, partly fog, damp and unpenetrable at times and then it lifts, only to fall again. One day it will lift a little longer and a little longer still. Grief writer Alan Wohfelt calls them “Grief Bursts” — those things when you hear a certain song or see the photo or handwriting. You know they lessen. But I will tell you that they may never go away completely. Perhaps they shouldn’t, for what would be so sad as to be forgotten.

    I’m so very, very sorry for your loss, Becca, and send you wishes of peace and healing.

  5. I’m so sorry to hear this sad news. You are right, here, in so many things: no matter how prepared you think you are, you can never truly be prepared; the death of a parent, even though we all expect to face it, is loss of an entirely different order from any other; it’s shocking how fresh is the grief that strikes months or even years down the road, from the most unexpected places. Be kind and gentle with yourself, and know that even your anger comes from a place of deep love. I wish you peace and comfort in this difficult time.

  6. Dearest Becca,
    I am so sorry. Grief is such a complicated mess and reminds us again, of how many lives are encompassed within one lifetime.
    After my mother died, I remember being shocked by the physicality of grief and the way random moments could trigger so much pain. Every time it happened I would think that I must be finished. It was so cathartic and so very powerful that there couldn’t possibly be any more tears…until the next time it happened.
    Eventually there was more space between those events and now I can think of my mother in a way that doesn’t sideline me.
    This too, shall pass. It is a deceptively simple phrase, but very true.
    Meantime, breathe and feel and be with whatever it is, because grief is also our life.
    “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

  7. Dear ones, thank you all for your kind words. I do appreciate the love and wisdom, and I know many of you have made this grief journey with your own parents. Day by day I’m living and learning and trying to take care of my heart.

  8. Becca, I’m arriving way late… but this has me in tears this morning. Not only because I’m an only child, but because this was so beautifully written. And even though I’ve allowed myself to fast forward and imagine losing a parent, you brought to life how I’m sure I will feel also. All of those unreconciled feelings that come with divorce (the ones I think I have reconciled) and the pushed down feelings of abandonment will certainly rise up, and in a way that I won’t be able to prepare for. I understood your explanation of your mom’s private grief, too. Death brings a finality that I’ll never be ready for, even though I’ve dealt with it so many times.

    I’m thinking about you today, and thanking you for sharing your heart here.

  9. Dear Becca,
    I’m also arriving late to your blog, the first one I’ve ever interacted with or even seen actually, This done by my daughter’s suggestion in search for some kind of…….I’m not quite sure. Firstly, I’m very sorry for the loss of your father.

    My mother passed away yesterday.
    She was 81 and doing reasonably well until two days ago when her condition spiraled down very quickly. As others have said, much to my relief, no one is truly prepared for this.
    I know I wasn’t even though I had thought I’d been preparing myself for this for years as I cared for her.

    I feel so terribly lost..
    The grief in all of this has crippled me, paralyzed my life as I try to begin to work my way through to the other side of this nightmare. There are so many thoughts of her that unexpectedly interject into every aspect of every second of every moment. I often feel like I won’t make it through this to any familiar level of normalcy again.

    I really have no one that isn’t long distance helping me with this, and I’ve never had to go through the death of a parent so closely before. I don’t know anyone my age (early 50s) that I’m comfortable talking to about this. My children help but the conversations are on line and they’re all too far away for me to feel much solace at the moment. I feel like everything I’m trying to do doesn’t help and for the first time in my life, I can’t help my own self.

    I’m at a loss for how to cope with this storm of utter despair and would welcome any help from you or the others on how to normalize this a bit.

    • Ingrid, I am so sorry for your loss. You and your mother were obviously very, very close. I think you will need a great deal of time to learn to live without her, and you must above all be patient and tender with yourself – care for yourself now as if you were caring for her.

      One of the things that has been hard for me during this time of grieving is that the world seems to expect us to move on quickly, to get back to normal without fuss or bother. I think back to the times when people wore mourning clothes for months after a loss, how it was expected that they would withdraw from society. Yet now we hurry back to work and social lives, telling ourselves it will “help” to resume our regular activities.

      I’m not sure about that. I think when you suffer a great loss, it affects you emotionally but also physically. You don’t sleep, your appetite suffers. (Or maybe just the opposite, depending on your individual personality!) I think slowing down the pace of life for a while in order to heal is a good thing.

      I think time and tenderness with yourself are your best friends right now. Whatever activities make you happy, do them. Whatever people comfort you, find ways to be with them. I find that writing about things helps me. Grab a pen and a spiral notebook and just pour your heart out on the page. Then go for a walk outside. Those are greatly therapeutic activities for me.

      And please don’t hesitate to seek professional help in a support group or someone you can talk to. Grief is part of the human condition, we all experience it at some time or another, and we all can use a helping hand and a listening ear.

      I will hold you in my thoughts this holiday season, because I know it will seem impossibly hard. Please let me know how you are doing as the days go on.

      Blessings to you.

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