Updated: Jan 23, 2019
How do you practice Gratitude when it seems like your entire world is crashing down around you?
My father passed away 2 weeks ago...which seems impossible as I see the black characters appear on my white page… just 2 weeks ago I had a Dad….and now I don’t? Ugh.
Some of you may know that my Dad was ‘terminal’ - in the sense that he had a degenerative disease, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis - so we knew his ‘days were numbered’ but from the time he was diagnosed, he seemed to take it all in stride, and find ways to make it work for him. While we watched his dependence on his supplemental oxygen increase, and his ability to do everyday tasks become more and more difficult, I marveled at his ingenuity. I'm sure it drove my poor Mom crazy at times, but he’d use his brand of MacGuyver engineering and find a way. He rarely complained, instead focusing on staying on top of all the things he needed to do that day, which, in some ways, was infuriating!!! Take a break, would ya!??!
We had almost 5 years from the time of his diagnosis until now, and for the majority of that time, he was able to do a version of most every daily task. So while it may seem like an oxymoron to say someone who was ‘terminal’ died ‘suddenly’ - it really was sudden for us. He went from ‘limping along and making things work’ to ‘out of time’ in the space of a few days.
He’d been in the hospital for 3 days, battling a lung infection, but didn’t seem to be rallying the way we’d hoped. I got a call at work saying that the Doctors wanted to intubate him… and in that moment, I knew...this was it. It was around 10:30 in the morning. I had a half cup of coffee in my hand when the call came in. I said I’d be there right away, and quietly hung up. And then I didn’t do a thing. If the phone rang again, I didn’t hear it...if an email popped up, I didn’t see it. All I saw was that half cup of coffee. And I told myself if I just sat and drank my coffee, everything would be ok, and this wouldn’t really be happening. So I sat. And drank the coffee. I fought back tears and a bubble of terror as I swallowed each gulp. And when the cup was empty, I then sat motionless, and stared fearfully at the wall for another minute or so. I knew, in my practical brain, that I had to get up...to get to the hospital right away….but in my heart...I was paralyzed. I eventually croaked out a few words, just barely loud enough for my colleague (aka Work Wife) to hear. “I’ve got to go….’ I think I said it 3x before she came over to my desk looking puzzled...and by the time she got there, my head was down, and my shoulders were shaking. Willing it not to be true with every fibre of my being. “I’m not ready” ...once I said it, I kept repeating it. Holding my breath, and curling tighter into a ball. Alternating between an internal scorn for being ‘very un-adultlike’ to feeling like a wounded child. I was sure an hour had passed, but it was only a few minutes.
In the hospital, we were given the bad news that his prognosis was grim, and a traumatic, life ending event was imminent. Dad made the decision to accept Palliative Care - which allowed him to die with no pain, no panic and no trauma. (different than Physician Assisted Dying - although I am an advocate for the ability to choose this) While he wasn’t in any pain before he went...he was maxed out on the highest level of oxygen available, which still wasn’t enough. He was losing ground quickly, so much so, that in the end, it was too risky to even move him to the Palliative Care Unit lest he arrest on the way.
In the final moments, Dad was given sedation….he looked up, raised his eyebrows and said “woo..I can feel THAT…” with a little smile, and we all laughed...then he fell asleep. Fade to black. His last laugh. Bittersweet for us, as the next step was to remove his life support. He didn’t feel anything at all after this…..but as those next few moments passed, my eyes fell on a chart on the wall -
10 little smiley faces arranged in a ‘Rate Your Pain’ Chart… Funny how while Dad’s pain and worry went in one direction, ours went the opposite way. I remember a brief flash of anger at the smiling ‘0 Pain’ Smiley face… taunting me with it’s wide grin...And then I looked down, at Dad’s hand in mine, and was grateful he was not feeling what I was feeling.
Losing my Dad was unbelievably painful and heartbreaking...I’m STILL not ready….however, even in that darkest moment, I was SO incredibly grateful that he didn’t have to suffer through a painful and panicked trauma...which was inevitable had he not chosen this route. I am forever thankful for being able to say goodbye, to hold hands, and laugh and share stories for a few hours. To be surrounded by family, to support him, and each other. That he didn’t wither away connected to tubes and machines...he would have hated that. I was amazed by the kindness of the nursing staff...who may, or may not have appeared with a few cans of beer at one point, and who each spoke to Dad to thank him for being a great patient...and saying ‘it’s been a honour’. The Special Care Nurse, Ryan… who explained everything with clinical accuracy, but more importantly, humility, and humanity, instead of simply acting dismissive toward a terminal patient like so many others had done.
Somehow, I walked out of that hospital a mere 6 hours later, upright and by all outward appearances, fully functional….yet, not really ok at all.
That night, just before my ‘Gratitude Meditation’ Reminder popped up on my phone,
I braced myself. What on EARTH could I have to be grateful for today, of all days? Another minute ticked by….closing in on 10:30.
I. Will. Not. Hit. Stop. I. Will. Not. Dismiss. This. Practice.
And moments later, my alarm jangled away: “ #100happydays Give Gratitude every day” and I felt like there was a knife in my throat. But I breathed….and I remembered the warmth of Dad’s hand in mine, and I breathed in and out again….and in that moment, I was grateful. I realized in that moment, that if I could find a grain of positivity, and something to be grateful for on this horrible day, I was going to make it through this.
I had days of intense sadness…anything beyond basic functioning was a little out of my grasp. In those moments, I’d close my eyes, and see flashes of both life, and death….and I’d squeeze my eyes tighter to block it out. I kept telling myself…”it’s ok...it’s ok. He’s not dying anymore” Which sounds bizarre… but for me, we had been playing such a horrible game of waiting to see when the other shoe would drop, it was a strange relief not to be sitting on pins and needles, waiting for the next big trauma. The next big scare, call to 911, visit to the ER with nurses running towards us, all traces of the kind smiles wiped out by a mask of intense focus.
No more being scared. I kept telling myself that. Little waves of thanks lapped at my ankles….but were still a long way from my heart.
As condolences poured in, each one ripped open a new wound….hearing nice things about Dad served for a moment, to magnify the pain of this loss. It took a little while, but after a day or two, I forced myself to read through them….to FEEL the love...and soon, I was able to feel the love and warmth take over and start to drown out the pain. I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful messages of love and support we received, and wouldn’t trade that initial pain for losing even one of those messages.
I know I needed to allow the feelings to flow through me...bad, AND good feelings, but after a few days, I needed to find coping mechanisms beyond devouring twice my weight in processed carbs, and staying awake for days on end. I caught myself replaying happy memories...and then felt a wave of guilt for feeling happy. This was a wake-up call. No more of this. I would come back to a gratitude practice
Every sad, or scary thought I had, I countered with some iota of gratitude. Even if it was as small as acknowledging that we had the ‘good’ Kleenex for my poor, raw nose and eyes.
Given the stress, lack of sleep, horrific dietary practices, and sheer overwhelm, my guts should, by all rights, be totally going ballistic. But nope. They remained silent. Thank you.
My dogs , who never left my side the whole time i was off work….puppy snugs...yep….I thanked them each personally.
Deliveries of flowers, cheesecake, friends, wine, and hugs.
Hearing my Mama say she’d received cards, flowers, soup and various other acts of kindness. I was thankful that others stepped in the help hold her up when I was absolutely absent to do this for her.
My heart was starting to swell. It swelled up around all the broken parts, and for a moment, it felt a little less broken.
In our case, Dad’s death closed a chapter that was fraught with fear,
and worry. I know not everyone has this kind of experience, and I realize now, how fortunate we were to have the time that we did, and that he never experienced any real pain or intense suffering. I will live out the rest of my days with peace
in my heart because I was able to tell him how much I loved him….and thank him for being there for me every time I needed him, and perhaps most importantly, that he’d succeeded in training me to get my oil changed BEFORE the flashing light comes on! #Dadforthewin
I am working every day to bring even more gratitude into my life. To be more aware, and to acknowledge the good...even the little things. This is helping immensely. I haven’t had a day without tears yet. It will come. But I also know for sure that I haven’t had a day without a smile, however tear soaked it may be. And for THAT… I am unbelievably grateful.
Here’s a link to the Obit I wrote for Daddio….. And p.s. The Celebration of Life was sooo amazing. (and yes, he dictated his wishes on that front too!) The venue was jam packed with loved ones, many hugs, good food, great story telling, wonderful live music, thanks to “Dill & The Picklers” (!!!) and a beautiful toast to raise our glasses to a pretty epic guy.
Miss you already. Thank you for everything