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Ode to My Father

Updated: Jun 4

As of this last April, a universal bell was rung and I earned my proverbial wings: I am now, ostensibly, an adult orphan—as many before me, and as many yet to come. It has been a soft landing, as my mom (stepmom) of over forty years is still alive and very much in my life. Nevertheless, the people who gave me life are no longer living on this earth.

 

As an end-of-life doula, I have both witnessed and companioned those whose parents have died. And no matter how old we are, realizing that we are stepping into elderhood in this profound way can feel like the start of a fledgling hero’s quest. It is a time of grief, a time of expansion, a time of nostalgia, a time of not-knowingness, a time that asks us to step into our adulthood in new and expanded ways.

 

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of my own journey can be summed up in the word “bookends”. Losing my mom at the tender age of four was a markedly different experience than accompanying my dad in his dying time. It’s as if I’ve spent my entire life preparing and readying myself for the death of my dad, though as any of you who’ve been there know, you can never fully prepare.

 

My mom’s death was no doubt one of the single most impactful experiences of my life. A foundational experience that in many ways has shaped so many facets of my being. At the time of her death, I felt small and helpless, fearful and confused, alone and unseen. My grief went largely unacknowledged, nor understood, and I spent the years that followed learning to care for and honor that grief through trial and error. A bit of trailblazing, undoubtedly, as there was little societal support for children in grief at the time. And surfing the waves of grief is a lifelong pursuit, make no mistake.

 

Yet this lifelong pursuit is what led me to the path of the death doula, allowing what I had learned to transform alchemically into my capacity to sit deeply beside those who are turning to face death, and to support others who feel helpless as it inches closer. I have become the person who marvels on this side of the veil alongside others as they engage with the unknowable and eventually pass through to whatever awaits us all.

 

Over the years, my dad had had a contentious relationship with dying and death. Understandable, as it took from him both a wife and a daughter, his parents, a brother, grand and great grandparents, and countless friends. As a man who lived deeply into life, death was something that took up residence in the background. Why think about death when you can l-i-v-e? I understood this intuitively, though it was not my lived experience. I suspect that he did not avoid thinking about death, rather, his relationship with it was a private affair, which he rarely spoke about.

 

When his time came, precipitated by a trip to the ER, I was buoyed by a sense of calm and focus. I navigated the healthcare system’s maze, found internal allies to support me, triaged with family members to ensure our collective alignment at each choice point, helped advocate for values-aligned decision-making on my father’s behalf. But most importantly, and let me say this again, MOST importantly, I created spaciousness when everything around us felt as if it were closing in. I felt my body push back against those walls as they closed around us, creating a cocoon for my father’s final dying hours. I played his favorite music from across his lifetime. I affirmed him in gentle voices, letting him know how well he was doing the very thing that he feared most. I taught my family members to slide their hands under his for his comfort and their own. I worked alongside my physician sister to help devise a solid plan for comfort care that I wish for all families who are witnessing the death of someone they care for.

 

I watched without turning away as his breath grew shallower. As painful as it is, I was able to keep my heart open and remain present. I saw his final breath leave his body, and I hugged him and felt what remained of life release into the ether around us. I did not stop my tears as they came, and I settled into the liminal space, knowing that it IS. I resisted nothing. I held his hand to my heart and wept openly. I did not move quickly after death. I soaked in his scent, the feel of his skin, mapping the contours of his familiar face that would soon be gone to me. I bathed him with my mom, a final tender act of caring for someone I loved deeply, and will miss for what remains of my life. Having thought I could not serve as doula for my dad, I was surprised by my capacity to help gently move his body into the body bag. I will be forever grateful for the tenderness of the two nurses as we held hands over his body before beginning our work. I was the final person to kiss his forehead.

 

Then, in the weeks that followed, a gift. I announced his death on his social media page, having logged into his account with his cell phone. As I scrolled through his newsfeed with nostalgia at my side, I spied a post that I had not seen from years earlier: a memoji with his image declaring “Happy Día de Los Muertos” from 2021, a tradition I have honored and integrated into my own life since my time of living in Mexico, some twenty years ago. I had invited him to the gatherings I hosted in years past, but he would politely decline, citing a conflict for the evening. As I say to my clients, my aim is not to over-expose anyone, so I accepted his decline with grace, yet tried each year anew to include him. Unbeknownst to me, something had shifted for him.

 

I love to imagine that through the hours of storytelling of my clients’ experiences of turning toward death, I may have had a hand in coaxing him to raise his eyes to meet its gaze. Regardless of my influence, or perhaps lack thereof, I am so pleased to know that my dad arrived at death’s door a familiar visitor rather than an embittered stranger, as I had imagined it would be. A man weathered by death throughout his life, surrendering to the homecoming that awaits us all.

 

Rest easy, Dad. I love you now and for as long as I will live.

 

 

 

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