Losing a Parent: A Beginner's Guide

September 17, 2017

Likely at some point in your life, you will lose a parent. Whether you’re 18, 28, 38, or 68 – it is never easy. I’ve been dealing with this for a few short days, but here are seven things I wish I knew going into it. 

1. IT IS THE LITERAL GODDAMN WORST.

Yeah, that may be an understatement. I think because we are faced with death and violence in our entertainment, it blunts you to the figurative concept of death. I binge-watched Criminal Minds last summer and I’ve seen all the episodes of the new season. All told that is 254 episodes, and figuring for an average of 2 dead bodies per episode (which is an incredibly conservative estimate) I think I probably saw 508 people die/be dead.

That was absolutely nothing compared to watching a person I loved so much – who used to have color in his cheeks and be walking around having opinions, making jokes, telling me he loved me – be lying still, bereft of life. It is the worst. You want them to sit up, tell you that they’re kidding, that they’re fine, and that they want to go out for a steak dinner.

2. IT CHANGED MY VIEW OF LIVING/DYING AND BODIES.

This summer I coincidentally read the book “When Breath Becomes Air” about a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He explores the relationships between living and being alive. If you are breathing and your heart is beating, but your brain is nonfunctioning, you are living, but are you truly alive?

My dad was unconscious for a few days before he died. The first day or so, he could definitely hear us. He reacted by moving his foot, trying to open his eyelids. When I played music for him, he moved his toes and neck. But toward the end, he was motionless. It made me start to wonder when he left. That vessel, the legs and arms that carried him for his 66 years on the planet lie there motionless, hooked up to countless tubes, hoses, and chemicals. But he couldn’t say hello, or laugh, or eat, or hug anyone. What is being alive if not those things?

As he was taking his final breaths, I leaned down and whispered to him. I hope he could hear me. I believe he could. I squeezed his hand really hard, because I wanted to never forget what that felt like – not just how his hand felt but how it felt when it was warm and with him still in there.

Later on, after we left the ICU room and were out in the waiting room, the nurse came back to tell us he was “ready” for us to go back in and see him. This seemed weird to us and we had no idea what she was telling us to do. She also mentioned there were refreshments in the room (???). My aunt and I walked back in there. My dad was in the same bed, but he had a yellowish hue to his skin.

And I should clarify, I don’t think my dad was in there. The body he once occupied was now vacant, the tenant had moved out, and the crew came in to clean up. Not to mention, someone had slicked his hair down. CARDINAL SIN! My father was a handsome man with dark tan skin, big blue eyes, and a killer pompadour hairstyle. He did not ever slick his hair down under any circumstances. He avoided hats and swimming to avoid messing up the ‘do. I did what I could to fluff it up.

When I was a kid, a neighbor lady died. She died of something that caused her body to swell, so she was bloated and slightly blue. At the funeral, which was, for some misguided reason, an open casket affair, I walked to the front with my mom and my godmother, Lillian. The family had dressed the body in denim: a denim vest with a little red shirt, which only emphasized the blueness. Anyway, I thought the body was gross and weird, and when Lillian reached in to squeeze her hand and say goodbye, I was horrified.

Back in the ICU room the day my dad died, the little man from nutrition services wheeled in a cart with a coffee urn and cups, little packets of Splenda and creamer, a tray of assorted cookies, a bucket of water bottles and a bucket of hospital-issued juice cups, and said “For the family.” I replied, “We actually don’t know this guy, we are here for the cookies,” – something that I do not regret saying because my dad loved pulling pranks and loved laughing, so his spirit probably thoroughly enjoyed the confused and scared look on the man’s face.

But back in the room, I didn’t have a problem fluffing my dad’s hair because he would have wanted that. I didn’t think it was gross or weird to touch him. But I also didn’t feel like I was touching him. I didn’t feel like I needed to throw myself on the body like a dramatic woman in a made-for-TV movie. I didn’t want to spend a ton of time with his body because he just wasn’t there.

I think part of grief is figuring out where a person goes when they die. Religious people say heaven. Spiritual people say they become one with the universe. I think it’s perverse and wrong to say someone else’s loved one is anywhere except where those left behind think they are (if that makes sense). 

To me, I know where my dad is now. He’s in my heart, walking beside me, watching over my shoulder, laughing at my antics. I’m grateful that he was very free with his emotions and told me every time we talked how proud he was of me, how much he loved me, and when I would do something funny how “that kid breaks me up” (a quote from the Big Max Calvada episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.)


3. IT MAKES YOU DREAD THE FUTURE.

Each time a future event/holiday comes in my mind, I’m like “Blah I don’t even want to do that.” A big family tradition was going to the State Fair of Texas together. The fair is about to open. I don’t even want to go.

I’m getting married in the near future. The prospect of a big wedding where (a.) my dad doesn’t walk me down the aisle, and (b.) a reception where there is no father/daughter dance, a thing I’ve been planning since I was old enough to plan weddings, just seems so sad and lame. I’m sure with time I’ll change my mind, but right now that sounds awful.

My dad was my favorite part of holidays. He would sit quietly on a sofa, or stand quietly in a corner, and when I approached him, he always had something funny to say. He was always there, teasing the little kids, sipping his drink, trying to watch the Cowboys game despite the cacophony of voices. On Christmas, he would be bullshitting with the guys. When we gave him gifts, he would react with such surprise and delight (“You didn’t have to do that!”). I love my family. I really do. I’m very lucky in that regard, but the idea of Thanksgiving and Christmas without him seems empty. 

4. IT MADE ME THANK MYSELF FOR MY RABID TENDENCY TO DOCUMENT THINGS, TAKE PICTURES, SAVE VOICEMAILS, ETC.

I have 16,000 pictures on my iPhone. I also have a ton of voicemails I have not deleted. In going through those, I found 21 voicemails from my dad, including two birthday voicemails where he’s singing me “Happy Birthday.” In my phone pictures, I found 100 pictures of him and screenshots of conversations we had and quotes he said. I am so glad I documented as much as I did. Anytime we were together, I took a selfie with him.

I also saved a ton of cards from him and my mom – birthdays, graduations, Valentine’s Days. I found the best inscription in one of them and I am so glad I saved them in the “box of junk under the bed” I could never bring myself to get rid of.

You don’t have to wait for holidays or important events to take pictures together. Make every event with your loved ones a celebration. You’ll cherish those later, I promise.

5. IT MAKES YOU FEEL LOVED. 

I have had no fewer than 200 people reach out to me. That number seems astounding. I have friends who I’ve been close with throughout his sickness bring me food. I have friends who I haven’t talked to in years reach out with funny stories and memories of him. I have friends in other states, in other countries, on other continents who have reached out. Thank you, to every single person who has even said a simple “I’m sorry.” That makes it better by tiny increments.

6. IT MAKES YOU FEEL LUCKY.

I have a real problem with self-pity because my mind immediately goes to all the people who’ve had it worse than me. I am nearly 31 years old. I got all 31 of those years with my dad. The cruel truth is whether I live 31 more years or 61 more years (I am working on living to be in my 90s like Carl Reiner), I won’t get to do it with my dad around.

But I have friends who lost parents when they were teenagers. My dad got to see me accomplish a lot throughout my twenties. We got to do a ton of fun things together – take trips to Chicago, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, and to casinos together. I got 10 more Thanksgivings and Christmases and Father’s Days than some other friends got.

And as sad as it was watching him be sick – which was devastating to see such a strong and hardworking man needing help for something so simple as a sip of water or going to the bathroom – it also helped ease my sister and I into the idea that maybe he wouldn’t be around.

At no point did we give up. Even on the day he died, we were asking the doctors for a miracle. But the sweet-faced resident in square framed glasses had to tell us, his voice sweet but regretful, that our dad was “actively dying” in front of us.

(I need to point out how graceful and big-hearted my phenomenal sister is for a moment. As she and I cried after hearing this news, she wiped her tears with the raggedy hospital-issued tissues whose pieces broke off into our eyes and made the crying worse, and she said, “It must be so hard for that doctor to have to tell people news like this. I feel bad for him.” In an incredibly devastating moment, my sister found space in her heart to be concerned about this ICU resident physician and how his delivering the news to us must have affected him.)

Even though his being sick for 24 days seemed so sudden to us, I have had friends whose fathers had heart attacks on the sidelines at soccer games, sitting in the easy chair at home, or toiling away at work, and passed away suddenly. My family has known people who were killed violently in car wrecks or work accidents.

I don’t think many of us get to choose how we die, but I think being surrounded by a loving, dedicated wife and two daughters who refused to leave his side or let go of his hands up until the very end is not a bad way to go. Hearing his son-in-law say, “Go easy, we’ll take care of them for you,” gave him peace. Hearing my sister and I whisper in his ears that we loved him as the last things he heard are way more than the average person gets to experience in their final moments on this earth.

So when my aunt and I were back in the room after he was gone and they had “cleaned him up” (aka ruined his hairstyle) and the cart of refreshments was pushed in, we debated on whether we could take it to the waiting room where ten more family members were waiting.

           “It would go to waste here,” my aunt said.

           “Should we ask them if it’s ok?” I said.

           “Ask forgiveness not permission,” she said. She opened the curtain and I pushed the cart down the hall.

My aunt said some final sweet words before we walked out. The last thing I did alone in the room with his body was reach under the blanket and squeeze my dad’s hand – his left hand, the one with the crooked pinky he never got reset after breaking it.

But it wasn’t even his hand any more. He had edema from some of his medical issues, so it was fat and the skin was tight. Worst of all, it was cold. Not like before when I squeezed it and whispered to him while he was breathing.

And that helped, I think. Because like I said, he’s not there in that ICU room. He’s not in the refrigerator at the funeral home. When they bury him tomorrow, he won’t be in the ground in the Cowboys blue casket we picked out for him.

He’s with me. He’ll be backstage with me before every show. He’s sitting beside me now watching me write this. He’ll be with me in traffic when I’m singing showtunes all alone in my car. He’ll be there when I’m walking down the aisle, having a baby (please look away when it counts), when my kids are learning to walk or going to their first days of school. He’s with me every time I make a good joke (or a bad one), or watch Seinfeld or The Dick Van Dyke Show.

I miss him so much, and I wish I could just pick up the phone and call him. But it is comforting (if a small comfort) that he is a part of me, invisible to anyone else. And he’ll stay with me until the very end.

***

BONUS #7 - YOU HAVE TO NEGOTIATE FUNERAL COSTS LIKE A USED CAR SALE. 

I was happy to end on that lovely note about my dad always being with me, but I feel compelled to tell you guys that you really do have to negotiate funeral costs. It is sick and weird. The funeral home told us their basic package was $8400, and we said “[Other Funeral Home] said they would do it for $4500,” and THEY PRICE MATCHED! It was really awful, but my dad loved a good deal so we left feeling pretty good about that. 

Heather McKinney