Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Give Sorrow Words
PHOTO: My dad in the fifties. I call this his 'hep kat' shot. His apartment was so hip and he played in a jazz band. So cool!
Any advice on grief? I’m working through my own. I think I need to talk about it a bit. I’m learning that despite what they tell you about the Stages of Grief and so on, there are actually no rules.
Although there are may situations in life that can cause grief, I’m thinking about the loss of a loved one through death. This is something each human being must surely experience at some point in their life. I experienced it profoundly for the first time, at the age of 40. I guess I should count myself lucky. I had been, in previous years, to the funerals of an aunt in Europe who I had loved dearly and my paternal grandmother (who I was fond of, but did not know well) and beloved maternal grandparents, who were a solid part of my childhood, a treasured influence and inspiration, but not an everyday relationship. None of these occasions prepared me for the death of my dad.
In April it will be three years since my dad died of lung cancer. He was sick for over a year leading up to his death. In the last three or four weeks of his life, I was in a position to take long service leave from my job and stay at my mum & dad’s. My husband took charge of our family for the most part and I popped home only every few days to do some cooking and check in. It was a precious time. I loved being with Dad. I wasn’t much help because my mum was amazing in her tireless care of my dad. She was completely on top of all the doctors, specialists, medications and treatments. She had changed the house around so that Dad could be in the lounge room comfortably. And later, she converted his bedroom to a kind of sitting room so that he could stay in bed and receive visitors in a welcoming environment. She bathed him, changed him and took care of all his personal needs, including injections because he was a diabetic. Just pause over that last sentence for a moment. Are you married? Remember that vow; in sickness and in health? I saw it lived out.
I remember when my husband and I had been married for two months (20 years ago now), we went to a marriage enrichment course. It was a bit of a joke with all of the couples. How could you ‘spice’ up a marriage that was still in the honeymoon period?! I will never forget one of the guys who spoke. He wasn’t a professional speaker ... just a guy from our church in his late forties. His wife had a serious medical condition (I can’t remember the name) and it had caused her to have severe personality changes as well as sudden onset of muscular pain. She would sometimes swear and abuse him, but he told us, weeping as he said it, that this was not really her. So he would smile at her through the tirade of abuse. He spoke of how he would frequently be woken up in the middle of the night and her cries of pain would only be relieved by his massaging of her cramping muscles, sometimes for hours. He said to the group of married couples gathered, “Do I love her in that moment? No. All I want to do is tell her to leave me alone. I’m tired. I’m lonely. I’m weary. I don’t want to massage her until my arms ache. My love is an emotion that gets pushed and pulled by circumstances. That’s why I needed a vow of commitment to keep that love intact. In the middle of the night when she calls on me. That’s when I commit. And love is there in the morning”
My mum demonstrated tender love towards my father in his final days, and also unwavering commitment.
I do have to mention here that my mother comes from a family of highly committed people. Her brothers and sisters, and their husbands and wives were an integral part of Mum’s strength and capacity to serve Dad. Coupled with her faith in God, my mum managed to keep Dad at home in comfort.
One thing I was able to do for my dad was massage. He had always had such stiff shoulders and, even as a kid, I used to like the challenge of trying to kneed those rock hard muscles. He loved the free massage! He was much more fragile now and couldn’t handle a hard massage. But his feet were sore and his skin drying out, so I got some moisturising cream and gently rubbed it into his feet. I had to be careful because he’d become so sensitive. I was worried I’d hurt him, but when I got it right, it was clear on his face that it was a relief to him. What a privilege to serve in this way. I will never forget it.
PHOTO: My dad in a very familiar pose with my youngest son nestled next to him.
Incredibly, at the same time, my mum & dad were moving house. Have you ever seen one of those lists on ‘the most stressful things in life”? It was mentioned to me at the time, and I have researched it since and confirmed it. Death, Moving House and Public Speaking (which we did a few days later at the funeral) are three of the top five causes of stress in life. And we were doing all three! Mum & Dad had already bought a new house and planned the moving date. Dad was keen to move, but getting more and more fragile. As our wonderful extended family packed boxes, Dad was comfortable and cared for by Mum. She was freed up to focus entirely on him.
The night before the move, we sent Dad to stay in a hospice. We had had a couple of moments in the days before where we thought his breathing had become shallow and he might be ready to pass on. We were worried that the hustle and bustle of the move as well as the discomfort of moving him would be too much. The plan was that he would spend the night in the hospice and we would pick him up the following afternoon when his room was all set up in the new house.
My sister, mum and I visited Dad at the hospice. My sister and I stayed until he was too tired to stay conscious and left at around 9.30pm.
My sisters, my mum and I spent the evening with my uncle and aunt who encouraged us to reminisce and talk about the things we loved about Dad. It was hard, sometimes painful, but also very much a time of strengthening and being grateful for all that we’d had.
The next morning we were called at around 7.00am to come to the hospice. Before we had completed the 30 minute journey there, Dad had died.
For some reason, I immediately went into ‘organisation mode’. I made the necessary phone calls to my other sisters and family members, got coffees for mum & my sister, talked to doctors, emptied the room of all Dad’s belongings (while his body lay there) and busied myself with the many things to be done. I still don’t know how or why I was able to do it ... divine intervention? I don’t know. I cried, but I stayed focused on the funeral preparations, including sifting through photos for the powerpoint display and preparing my speech.
Maybe my lack of emotional collapse at the time of his death has meant that my grief lingers and hovers for longer now. Maybe there’s some kind of weird natural formula that governs grief and its reach.
My sisters and my mum all have photos of Dad in their homes; on their shelves, fridges and mantlepieces. I don’t avoid them. I know they’re there, so I have to glance and acknowledge them, but then I move quickly on. I can’t have any photos of Dad in my house. I understand that, to my family, they are a reminder of the love they shared, the good times they had. To me, however, they are a reminder of the fact that he’s no longer here. That face, so familiar, present since the day of my birth, is one that I will never see again in this life. Even as I write it, I can’t believe it.
There’s no nicely rounded conclusion here. There’s no strategy that I’m going to recommend. I do talk about Dad, so I guess that’s a good thing. As William Shakespeare once wrote, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
Other than that, I just keep going.
I miss my dad.