Dad’s Final Lessons

May 20, 2016

For the last month, my primary focus has been my Dad’s death.  He went onto Hospice at the end of April.  He died on May 14th.  I was his caregiver and next-of-kin, held his power of attorney, and had the responsibility for packing up his things.  Though I have supported many people- congregants, family members and friends- through this process, it was my first time moving through it personally.  I predicted that I would learn a great deal, and I have.  I understand that every person’s experience is unique, yet share some of the things I learned, hoping that there might be points of connection or possibilities for conversation.

The first and most lovely lesson I received revolves around the outpouring of love and support, from the congregation I serve and from my wider community.  There were the congregational leaders who looked at me as if I were nuts when I suggested I might need to negotiate some unpaid leave, saying simply, “Do what you need to do, and let us know how to support you.” There were the folks who stepped up and stepped in, giving me the time I needed to be with Dad.  There were the cards and the emails and the calls and the Facebook messages and the thoughts and the prayers.  There were the caregivers at the assisted living facility who took such gentle care of Dad.  There were the amazing hospice workers and volunteers who responded to every phone call with kindness and competence.  Words can’t adequately express my gratitude for all of it. I felt held, ever so tenderly, by a great and broad network woven of love and generosity.  I am so very blessed.

Another lesson I learned centers on forgiveness.  It’s no secret that my Dad struggled in his life and in his relationships.  Alcoholism eroded him over time, carving away his physical, emotional and spiritual health little by little.   His inner core of self-loathing led him to lash out at the people who loved him most.  All of his children bear emotional scars from his abuse, and some of us carry physical scars as well.  One path to forgiveness involves the one who caused harm accepting responsibility for their actions.  That path wasn’t open to us with Dad.  He never admitted he was an alcoholic.  He never apologized.  However, in recent months, I discovered a different path to forgiveness.  It might not have worked if I hadn’t spent a fair amount of time in therapy, but somehow, seeing him vulnerable and afraid as he neared the end of his life woke up a deep compassion that allowed me to forgive him unconditionally.  I understood that the pain he caused grew out of his own scars.  I came to believe that he did the best he could.  My heart broke for him, enabling deep healing.

Just a few days before Dad went on hospice, I remember saying as part of a conversation about end-of-life issues that when my own death approached, I would take matters into my own hands and either swim out into the ocean and not turn around or lie down and go to sleep in the snow.  I was afraid of being helpless and undignified.  I agreed with those who said, “I’m not afraid of death, but I AM afraid of dying.”  The third lesson came as a true gift, then.  Watching Dad die, I realized that dying is an important and holy part of the human experience, one I want for myself.  Meanwhile, caring for him was just as important and holy, an experience I want to offer my children (or whoever winds up caring for me at the end.)  My fear of dying melted away.  Whatever fate waits for me at the end of my own life, I think I will be able to meet it with acceptance and curiosity, all because Dad trusted me to be with him at the end of his.

I loved my Dad.  I love him still.  I am profoundly grateful for these final lessons.  I am profoundly grateful for the love and the lessons he’s offered me over the course of my entire life.  I know I am still near the beginning of the grief process, and I believe more lessons may be forthcoming.  May I remain ever open and willing to learn.  May I remain ever open and willing to love.