What I’m Learning After Losing a Parent

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Three days after I wrote the post about my probable upcoming heart surgery in Cleveland, and six days before Shaun’s shoulder surgery, my Dad died. He’s the good-looking guy holding the beer in the picture. His death was rather sudden and not so sudden at the same time. He’d had a serious brain bleed a few months ago, but looked to be recovering quite well. Meaning, he was returning to his old self. Not the way he was a few days before the brain bleed, but the way he was in his earlier years. Then, for reasons unclear, his blood pressure dropped, dropped, and dropped some more to the point that CPR was performed for an hour without success. I didn’t even know medical professionals would perform CPR for that long, and if I could, I would talk to them and ask them why. Why did they keep going? Was it because my brother was in the room? Was it because they saw something in Dad that spoke of a fighter?

I’m learning there are a lot of questions that come up when your Dad dies. You want to know if he suffered, and if so, how. Yet at the same time, you don’t want to know anything because it’s better that way. Grief is worse if the suffering that led to death was horrific, and Dad’s suffering was nothing short of terrible and awful and horrific and heart-hurting. But something in you demands to be told the tale of how it all went down, in spite of knowing that knowing will do nothing but pour proverbial salt in your wounds. So you ask. Then you know. Then you don’t want to know. You want to get off the not-so-merry-go-round of grief and soul trouble, but there’s no stopping. The snippets of informative phone conversations with your brothers are embedded into your memory and they spin your guts around and around and shake you up at the oddest times. Like when you’re reading a fairly stupid novel to get yourself thinking of the lighter side of things and your undisciplined mind just floats right back to why? Why now? Why Dad? Why in a way that feels like open heart (soul) surgery without anesthesia?

I’m learning there aren’t a lot of answers for all the questions. God’s ways are not my ways. His thoughts are not my thoughts. Simple. Straightforward. But still hard to accept.

I’m learning that the type of grief experienced when a parent dies is unique. I am not new to grief. I lost grandparents who were more like parents to me in the years my parents were unable to … well, parent. I’ve lost great aunts and uncles suddenly, due to natural and catastrophic causes – diabetes, a snow avalanche, a mining accident, a car accident. I’ve lost a beloved Sunday School teacher to a brain tumor. I’ve lost a mom-in-law on my birthday. A radio preacher who ministered to me in ways nobody else could at the time – in a car wreck. Dogs. Cats. A cow named Jessica, because my family was hungry and we were dumb enough to name what would one day become our dinner. A bunny, because I fed it too much.

Anyone who has lived any length of time knows what it’s like to lose many souls in different “tents”, as the Apostle Paul called the body. But when the soul of a parent is rent from the body that gave you life, it’s different. That body and soul have always been there. Maybe not by your side, literally. But around. On this earth and a phone call away. And when death comes rather unexpectedly, the hands that used to grip your knee to make you squirm and squeal, the hands that swatted you for being naughty, the hands that fed you, clothed you, and provided for you for a decade and a half are now a small part of a big pile of ashes? It cuts pretty deep. Even if those hands didn’t always do their best. Even if those hands weren’t always faithful. Even if those hands hurt rather than helped at times. It just … smarts like a soul slap, if a soul could be slapped.

I’m learning that death purifies memories. It’s strange, really. I’ve no desire to air my Dad’s dirty laundry, but like everyone, he had a few piles. Err, maybe small mountains would be a more accurate phrase. When the now-deceased and his descendants are alive, it’s easy for the descendants to get honed in on the laundry stench. Then death comes, and the stench-y sin struggle of the deceased wafts further and further away. Put another way, it’s as if the good memories become so light, they surface to the top, and the bad, ugly ones become too heavy to bear, and like a silver fishing sinker, they do what they’re meant to do: hide and sink. The bad memories, though there, become much less visible, less noticeable, less hurtful. And the good memories come to the surface and float as though they have no plans to ever do anything different. I didn’t expect that. I expected the bad-ugly to remain vivid, and the good to remain elusive. My only question about this pleasant, unexpected surprise is … how do I make that happen with every living person I know and love, in the here and now?

Surface the good. Sink the bad. Sounds Biblical, even.

I’m learning to cherish Dad’s wicked cool accomplishments. Dad had enough intelligence to make those of us with smaller brains terribly envious. His accomplishments include serving as Mayor, and earning some pretty cool medals in the Navy. Not to mention he provided the dinky town I grew up in with electricity for years via huge computers. His work at the power company took brains, not brawn, even though he was loaded with both. Also? He ran into a slew of Hell’s Angels once. He said hello. They flipped him off. He nodded his acceptance of them flipping him off. They drove away on their Harley Davidsons. Takes intelligence to know when to catch a California bird and when to take a shot at beating someone’s brains into the concrete. He never really said, but I bet he was so scared he nearly wet his bell bottoms.

Fact is, Dad was pretty cool in a lot of ways. His Bible that he used the whole time I was growing up was heavily marked up in the book of Romans. And anyone who marks up the book of Romans is cool in my book.

I’m learning to be careful of what movies I watch. Shaun and I switched on the TV last night and came across The Bucket List. I love Morgan Freeman (and I can put up with Jack Nicholson), and I’d heard it was a funny movie. So since laughter was the medicine for which I searched, we watched. But you guys. There are maybe five scenes worthy of a laugh, and if that wasn’t disappointing enough … it’s one of those movies that by the end, if you’re not in tears, you’re dead. Some of the similarities to Dad’s end of life experience were uncanny. Kinda freaked me out and comforted me at the same time. So uhh, note to self: do not watch movies about an old crotchety man dying post brain surgery after your Pa just died post brain surgery. It’ll jerk tears out of you until you succumb to sleep, finally.

I’m learning that grief is hard on a body. Clearly, we are having a ridiculous run of misfortune lately between Dad’s death, Shaun’s surgery, and my upcoming surgery in Cleveland. So perhaps it’s everything combined. But as of two days ago, my body said stop everything, and stop it now. Typically, when I am up, Shaun is down. When I am down, Shaun is up. God’s been gracious to, for the most part, let life work out like that. But right now, we’re both down, so it’s an adjustment. Turns out being half orphaned throws me into a bit of a relapse, which I need to get under control before we leave for Cleveland! No. Pressure!! But as Earl A. Grollman once said …

The only cure for grief is to grieve.

There’s no way out of this. Grief has to happen and it has to happen in its own way, in its own time. Thank you for listening to my (sappy at times) account of raw grief. This too shall pass, although perhaps not until others are grieving for me and I’m up in Heaven with Dad, our relationship healed and perfect, with nothing between us except love, acceptance, and understanding. What a day that will be.

 

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