Four months ago, my father died. After 10 years of dementia, six of them in a nursing home and, toward the end, months of agonizing decline, Dad gave up his valiant struggle to stay alive. I like to believe he was ready. But was I?
On a cold morning early in March, while trying to find a parking space in the hospital lot, we got the call. "Sorry to bother you," the physician said. "But your father has passed." My mother, sister and I wailed. My father was truly gone and we were not by his side to send him off.
Some days when I wake up and remember that my father is gone, it feels like a piece of me is missing, that there's a hole in my heart that will never fully heal. I've had a sense of being emotionally limbless, missing a fundamental part of my being. Well-meaning friends, knowing that Dad lived in a nursing home and suffered from dementia, often assumed the loss was somehow less profound. "I imagine you started losing your dad a long time ago," they would say sympathetically. "At least he is no longer suffering." While these comments were intended to comfort, they didn't resonate with me.
Following the funeral, I observed shiva — the seven days of mourning traditionally practiced in the Jewish faith. I was deeply moved by the embrace of my community, which came together to stock my freezer with chicken, bagels, kugels and cakes. I allowed myself rare permission to just be and not do. Friends listened patiently as I reminisced. I told my father's life story, how he escaped Nazi Germany and built a new life for himself as an immigrant here. I spoke about his love of this country, his passion for social justice and his vast knowledge of history and current events. I laughed as I retold his corny jokes — even the one where, when driving past a cemetery, he'd say, "People are dying to get in there." I regaled my visitors with anecdotes that revealed my father's unusual ability to use humor and imagination to cope with years of decline.
And then, the mourning period was over. I got on a plane, went on a business trip and returned to life as usual — or so I thought.
Trained, But Still Not Ready
As a clinical social worker, I understand that grieving has five distinct stages and everyone's experience is unique. People deal with loss in their own way, at their own pace. Like the cobbler's children who have no shoes, though, I was not fully prepared for this emotional journey despite my professional training. I have emerged from my own grief with a better understanding of how to help the many sons and daughters I meet who are confronting the same life-altering passage.
It is never easy or simple. Twenty years after a friend's father died, life's joys often remind her of what she has lost. "When my grandson was born, I cried," she confided to me. "My father will never know his great-grandchild. But hopefully Dad's spirit will live on in the next generation." Another friend, whose mother died more recently, acknowledges relief in her passing. "It was awful in the end," she told me. "She was suffering and there wasn't much we could do. I feel guilty that despite feeling sad, I also have given up the burden of trying to somehow save my mother."
At the funeral of a friend's mother just weeks after my father died, I cried uncontrollably during the graveside service. I felt self-conscious about this display of emotion, since I had not known the deceased well, and my expression of grief reflected my own loss more than my friend's.
But I have learned to allow the process to unfold, even if it is messy, unpredictable and uneven. And I've learned to accept and even embrace the way seemingly simple events can trigger floods of emotion. During a recent trip to the bank, for example, I teared up after observing a woman grab a bunch of lollipops for her child. I had remembered how I would bring my father lollipops as a forbidden treat that he would relish with childlike glee during my visits to the nursing home.
(MORE: Professional Caregivers Need to Mourn Your Loved One, Too)
The silver lining of this experience is that it has deepened my sensitivity to the ways in which people grieve and approach the end of life. I know now that mourning comes in waves, retreats gradually, then resurfaces with unannounced force. What's most comforting to anyone experiencing it is to be heard and understood.
People often try to alleviate a mourner's anguish by attempting to diminish the pain. But feeling that sadness allows us to integrate our loss into a new understanding and acceptance of who we are. As we emerge from our course of grieving, we are starkly reminded that our own turn will come. Yet it is precisely this knowledge that helps us savor what we have, the people who are still with us and the ones, like my father, who live on in our souls.