On March 6, 2019, my father sat down on his recliner at home, fell asleep, and never woke up. They think it was a heart attack. It may have been “The Widow Maker,” referring to critical blockage of the main artery down the front of the heart. Whatever it was, at 78 years old, my father died with my mother at his side and her barely able to process what was happening.
My sister called and told me what she knew about when and how dad died. It was just after an Ash Wednesday service and my wife, Cile, and I were in a restaurant for a late lunch. After the initial shock, my immediate thought was what to do about mom. Dad did everything for her. He took care of the home and property, paid bills, cooked and cleaned, and took her to doctor visits. Dad kept us out of all of that almost defiantly, as if to say, “This is my job” or "I don’t want to burden you” or “I can do this without you.” I think he saw it as his duty. It may well have been part of the cause of his death. The caregiver is often the one most at risk of deteriorating health.
As expected, when we were finally able to get mom’s home, finances, medical, and legal matters in hand, we had much to do. We still do. Two months later, mom is still grieving deeply and there are some fundamental questions of her care that are yet to be answered. Happily, we are making great progress. My attorney, Andrew Gracy, has been a saint as has my care manager friend Kelli Edwards and many others. Their words have been both practical and comforting. The outpouring of care and concern for me and my family has been tremendous.
That outpouring of care is what is on my mind today. I have a stack of sympathy cards sitting on my writing desk at home, waiting for me to sit down and properly acknowledge. I’m sure I will have more reflections on his death in the future, but today I want to tell you about one person’s response. It was a letter from a woman my age whose father died eight years ago. The timing of her letter to me was one of those God-timed moments. I needed her words and there they were. She spoke of her experience and turned it into advice for me. I’ve asked her if I could share them. She agreed and here are her words. Perhaps they will be useful for you as well.
A Letter to Her Pastor
Dear Pastor John,
We were so sad to hear about the death of your father.
My own dad passed away a few days after Kate Middleton and Prince William got married. I remember that because I was sitting in his living room watching the wedding with him. He had been very sick for several years. When Kate was walking down the aisle, her sister Pippa was carrying her train. “Her sister fills out her dress better” was his comment…masculine to the end.
After my dad died, I was so bereft that the pain felt overwhelming. Can someone love you completely, with not expectation of personal gain? I think my dad loved me that way. I could turn to him for advice that was perceptive and ethical. I still miss his guidance. It was like looking through a smudged window; my dad could wipe away the dust and I could see things clearly again.
The reason I am writing you this is with the hope that I can pass on some of the helpful advice I was given.
Piece of Advice #1 - Hang on to a happy memory and focus on that
Mrs. Quick’s [a mutual friend] daughter, Ann, called to offer sympathy. It wasn’t so much of a conversation because the crying was choking me. Grief felt like a big gray cloud I couldn’t see through. Ann suggested that I hang on to a happy memory and focus on that. The last years of his life had been so tough that I wasn’t seeing the big picture. My dad had liked to grow things (all his children do too!). I have a big pot of amaryllis in front of the house. We called them “Ralphs” because my dad gave them to me. I would think of my dad and his garden when I looked at them. Slowly, the pain did start to get better…
Piece of Advice #2 - Find a place for the pain
Another friend says of the pain, “It doesn’t go away, but you find a place for it.”
It took me about two years to “come out of mourning.” My perspective shifted. I could see my dad’s life from more of a crane shot - many years of happy productivity with just a couple of tough ones at the end. He’d survived the Florida depression (“The Bust”), licked the Germans in WWII (he loved the Navy and the food…he gained 10 pounds), got married, raised five children, and ran his own business. Even though he couldn’t walk, he “went to the office” until the week he died. Death does not define him.
Piece of Advice #3 - Remember to be kind
When a parent dies and you have siblings…
When a parent dies, we revert. It’s like the tide is drawn back. All the barnacles and dead seaweed and muck are exposed. Resist the temptation to pick on anyone. Remember to be kind. Your whole family is grieving too. Don’t keep score. Be gentle.
Piece of Advice #4 - Give yourself time
As my pastor (you) said at the time, “Be kind to yourself too. You are in the desert. Give your time.”
Piece of Advice #5 - With the surviving parent, spend as much time as you can without driving yourself crazy.
My mother survived my dad. My relationship with my mother was more complicated. I wanted advice on how to take care of her - a formula for doing my share. How much sacrifice was an acceptable amount? When I asked a Hospice counselor how much time I should spend with my mother, he said, “As much as you can without driving yourself crazy.” That seemed trite at the time, but it turned out to be helpful. Personally, I could spend two hours with my mom before I’d had it. I visited her three times a week for two hours a visit. I wish I had been stronger and could have done more for her, but more started to make me crazy.
Piece of Advice #6 - Coordinate with your siblings
Don’t expect everyone to do the same thing (see #5 above), but if you can, don’t duplicate effort. Coordinating is more difficult if, like me, you come from a family of introverts, but it is important to speak up. We were all calling my mom on Sunday afternoons. With some coordination, we all picked a night of the week to call. If someone couldn't get through (sometimes the phone was off the hook), I could run over and check on her.
Dad’s are loving and gentle, funny and strong. I’m grateful that we have dads. Mine is in my heart and my head still. Your daughters, as old women, will feel the same way about you.
Wishing you blessings and healing,
At the time I received the letter, those words were like water to a dry sponge. I soaked them up and treasured them. There was nothing new in that advice. I’ve said most of it myself to others. In fact, I said #4 above to Suzanne. What was divine and beautiful and rich was how at the moment that I needed to hear certain words, God spoke through Suzanne to me.
Here is my encouragement to you. Be Suzanne for someone else. You may know someone going through a hard time. Speak with them or, better yet, write to them words of encouragement and hope. You never know the impact your words may have.
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