The older we get, the more we begin to experience death. At first it might be our childhood pets, maybe grandma or grandpa, who we barely remember. Then it starts to be friends and peers and if you’re like me, a parent.
I will never forget that sinking, bottomless pit feeling I got in my stomach when I googled the mortality rate of esophageal cancer after my father had sat me down to tell me that he had been going through chemo and radiation for months. After 5 years, most people diagnosed with esophageal cancer were dead.
Growing up, in my weird child brain, I used to think that having cancer was cool. Every year my family would participate in the Run for Women in Anchorage that celebrated breast cancer survivors. I thought it was cool how these women paraded around in pink feather boas and were worshipped like heroes. They all seemed so happy and joyous, with colorful headscarves or a proudly displayed shaved head. Whatever they had gone through must not have been so bad if this was the only thing I had seen.
Unless you personally know someone who is fighting cancer, you might not know the true hell behind it.
After my father told me he had cancer, the walls began to crumble down, I slowly started to see the reality.
I watched as he was pricked with needles countless times for I.V.s because he did not want a port, which could be painful and open to infection.
I saw the radiation burns on his skin and the scary body and head cast he had to put on when going through the radiation treatment.
I sat by his side while he was infused with chemicals that made him nauseous, tired, irritable, dry and unable to eat.
I was shooed away by mother when I caught her comforting my father the night before his surgery, the only time I can remember ever seeing my father cry.
I felt my heart leap in fear every time a monitor binged in his hospital room after he had the major surgery to have his esophagus removed and his stomach pulled up to his neck.
I cheered my father along as he got up and tried to make the painstaking walk around the ICU to get back on his feet after surgery.
I annoyed the hell out of my father to eat more and regain back all the weight he had lost from chemo and the surgery.
I felt my stomach drop every time we would go to restaurants and he would only be able to eat a few bites of his meals.
I felt the immense joy when I was told that my father was cancer free.
I watched as my strong, Marine father lost strength and withered away to a skeleton of a man.
I grew frustrated when I didn’t understand why my father couldn’t come to the airport to see me off.
I did not listen, nor remember my mother telling me, that the cancer had come back and things weren’t looking good.
I felt my heart break when my mother told me that I needed to return home to come say goodbye to my father because he did not have long to live.
I was numb when I saw my father sitting in his bed with a feeding tube in his stomach and talking with a raspy voice.
I sat next to him and watched all our favorite movies for a week because there was nothing else he had energy to do.
I drunkenly sobbed into the shoulder of my father’s intoxicated surgeon who had become a close friend and had come over to say goodbye to my father.
I tearfully said goodbye to him as I left to catch my plane back to Florida, telling him I couldn’t wait to see him at Christmas and that I knew he could push through.
I called my parents to talk to them and to tell my father how much I loved him, even if he was unable to do anything more than grunt.
I checked my phone during the middle of a ballet class on a Saturday morning to see that my mother had texted me that my father had passed away early that morning.
I went back in and finished the rest of the class, and the day, ashamed and embarrassed to cry.
I spent hours in my room, depressed and lonely, eating all the foods that reminded me of my father.
I bawled my eyes out while putting together a slideshow to show at his funeral, and later bawled even harder at his funeral.
I was crushed when we couldn’t have an open casket like my father wanted, because he did not look like himself, even in his full military dress blues.
I was overjoyed when we buried him in Arlington National Cemetery a year later, knowing he was where he deserved to be, among the other heroes of this nation.
I still cry when I think about him and miss him everyday.
What I didn’t see, was my mother accompanying him and later driving him to most of his chemo and radiation appointments.
Being there for all his doctor appointments.
Spending time shopping for all the particular foods and medical supplies he needed.
Helping him to use the restroom and cleaning up his messes.
Dealing with the hospice care and nurses and all the legal and insurance issues.
Calling 911 to have someone help when my father fell down and she couldn’t get him back up.
Watching her husband slowly die in front of her.
Waking up early in the morning on her birthday to find her husband laying next to her had passed away.
Dealing with the coroner and insurance people who thought it would still be appropriate to wish her a happy birthday.
Having to fight off being scammed by the creepy funeral home director.
The endless paperwork.
I know there is so much more that my mother experienced, and is still experiencing. She is the most incredible woman I know for being able to push through all this.
Now I know. Cancer is not a cool thing thing to have, and the death of a loved one is misunderstood by so many.
The worst were people saying things like, “everything happens for a reason”, “he’s in a better place now and can’t feel pain”, “don’t cry, you need to be strong for your [insert family member here], your father (husband) wouldn’t want you to be sad”, “this is God’s will”.
Yes, he’s in heaven now and doesn’t have any pain, but I want him here with me. I understand that God has a plan, but I still find it difficult to understand that watching my father die of such a terrible disease, and feeling the sorrow it has cause my mother and I, is part of his plan. That is not something you want to tell a person who has just recently lost a loved one.
People don’t understand how to talk about death, it’s messy because it’s full of emotions and there’s no telling what might surface. I have felt embarrassed, or like I’m inconveniencing the people around me when emotions about my father’s death surface. Sometimes, I get in an awkward situation where the death of my father comes up and I can see that the other person is taken aback and worried I’m going to explode. This leads to the uncomfortable moment when I smile to try to ease their worries and feel like I’m just brushing off the death of my father. There’s also been times when I’m talking about my mother coming to visit me, and it seems like she and my father have divorced, or he’s out of the picture, but I don’t think I should just blurt out, “I don’t have a deadbeat dad, he just died from cancer.”
Of course there have been many times when I’ve used humor to try to bridge the gap I feel between other people. I’ll drop Kanye-esque bombs like, “oh you’re doing blank for Father’s Day? Well my dad’s dead.” or shows picture of my dad and our two cats that passed away, “look, everyone in this picture is dead!”.
I know. I can be a terrible person, but sometimes dark humor is what helps me cope.
The best things people have done for me after the passing of my dad, was to send me texts or emails or cards (these I still consider so special, and have every single one of them) saying things like, “I’m thinking of you and praying for you”, “your dad was a wonderful person and I’m always here to talk if you need it” or “I’ll never forget [insert favorite memory of my dad here]”.
In my opinion, showing you care and are there for the person experiencing the loss, is the best thing you can do. Let them approach you with what they need, but never hesitate to reach out to spend time with them. Sometimes, just sitting next to someone and watching TV is enough because you know that you aren’t alone in this world.
People experiencing a loss can feel isolated from the world because of the deep feelings that they are having. Reach out to them, and let them know that you are there to listen. Talking and expressing emotions is the best thing a person can do when grieving. I refrained from doing so for so long, I pushed all my emotions back down, but they eventually surfaced and reared their ugly head. The same thing goes for people fighting cancer or having a loved one who is fighting it, be there for them in the way they need and encourage them to express their emotions.
One of the most pivotal moments for me, was last spring, when a group of my friends and I took a trip to D.C. and stopped by Arlington Cemetery. Standing by my father's grave and telling them about him and crying while they hugged me, was the most cathartic thing I'd experienced. I'm lucky to have such great friends who are always there for me.
My goal with this post is to hopefully push others towards understanding death and talking about it more. We are all getting older, and we will all die eventually. Morbid, but true.
Don’t you want to leave this Earth knowing that you helped someone through a rough time, and that there are people left on the Earth who will be there for your loved ones when you are gone?