The death of my father was one of the most difficult times in my life, but with God’s help, it became one of the highlights of my life. I watched my father choose his moment of death, see the light while he was still in his body, and then consciously leave his body in perfect serenity. His dying process changed our whole family.
Part I: The Journey Begins
My parents didn’t tell me my father was having his gallbladder removed until the night before the operation. They said it was just a minor operation, and they were afraid I would make the 550 mile trip to their house if they had let me know sooner.
During the operation, I was busy working at home. Suddenly I was struck by the thought that my father had cancer. Somehow, I had known the diagnosis at the same instant the doctors were reading the biopsy report. His whole body was filled with cancer. They stopped the operation and sewed him back up without removing his gallbladder. There was nothing more they could do.
Within the hour, my mom called me to confirm what I already knew. Dad’s cancer was very advanced. The doctors had said it was too late to do anything for him. Mom wanted me to drive down to Wichita, Kansas to be with my father when woke up and got the news himself.
As usual, Dad took it in his stride, as if he got news like this every day. He was well read on alternative healing methods, so I asked him what he wanted to do. He listed several possibilities. Then he said softly, “But it would be so easy to just to . . . give up.” I could hear it in his voice that this was what he really wanted to do. So I told him, “That’s all right, too, Daddy. I’ll support you in anything you want to do.” He had a right to spend his last days peacefully. He quickly said that “of course” he’d fight for his life, as if he was trying to hide his real feelings from himself, letting me know that he was doing the“right thing” by seeking treatment. Dad was very loyal to his family.
He had just finished reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book on the dying process. She points out that dying can a painful and lonely experience when no one talks about death with the dying person. They feel cut off from life and alone if they can’t share intimate feelings about dying with those closest to them. After all, dying is a major life event. I was grateful that her book had prepared him to experience his own dying process. “Daddy,” I said. “You don’t usually share your feelings with us, but now it’s going to be important for all of us to share our feelings. We need to support each other through this process.” He agreed and told me he would try to be more open with his feelings.
Part II: Denial
My father started an alternative treatment program, and everyone was optimistic about its success. Even though his doctor didn’t believe in the treatment my father had selected, he supported my father’s choice 100%, because he had no other option to offer him.
Dad did not share any feelings but optimism. Within the family, there was an unspoken agreement not to mention that anything but total recovery was possible, even though we all knew that might not happen. We were in denial of the possibility of death out of fear.
Father’s Day was rapidly approaching, and I wanted to get my dad a special card. But every time I looked at cards, I started crying. I was really having a tough time, and I couldn’t share that with anyone. I even felt guilty for what I considered to be negative thoughts.
One night about midnight, I could feel intuitively that my father was in pain. He hadn’t had any pain until then, so I had no rational basis for this feeling. Never-the-less, I was very sure he was in pain. I began to cry and talk to him in my mind, as if we were together. The pain seemed to stop about three o’clock in the morning.
All the next day, I asked myself, what was I going to do about my feelings. Did I imagine the pain? Should I tell him how I felt? Would my feelings be negative and interfere with his healing process? I didn’t want to hurt him, but it was hurting me keeping all these emotions inside.
Then I remembered that day at the hospital when we had agreed that it was important for us to share our feelings. I realized that I was terrified to do that. Maybe he was, too. Perhaps, someone had to go first. I decided to let it be me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I asked the God to help me. “Tell me what to do. Give me words that won’t hurt him.”
That night I called him to see if he had been in pain during the previous night or if I had imagined the whole thing. He told me he had experienced pain for the first time that night, and that he experienced the pain between midnight and 3:00 am. This confirmation was my signal to share my feelings.
“Daddy, I have a problem,” I began. “I have been trying to buy you a Father’s Day card, but I just keep crying all over the cards.”
My father retorted in a gruff tone, “Well, I don’t plan to drop dead tomorrow!”
Then I started crying. “I know that Daddy. But it doesn’t matter if you die tomorrow, next week or ten years from now. I’m just now facing the fact that I won’t always have my Daddy with me, and that hurts.”
He became silent for a moment and then said softly, “That’s right. I remember when I lost my Dad. It was difficult for me, too.” This was the opening that he had needed to reach his heart. For the first time, my father began to share his feelings. He continued sharing them with everyone from then on. I learned from this that we don’t give a person permission to do something with words. We give permission by doing it ourselves.
When I told him that I loved him, he told me something that amazed me. He said that the first time he began to think I might love him was the day I let him come to my house and fix the plumbing.. I was floored, especially since I was a very demonstrative person; hugging, kissing, saying “I love you” often. I have since come to realize that, like my father, many people don’t feel loved unless they feel needed. I had always been very independent and did everything for myself. Receiving is a way of giving to those who need to be useful to feel loved. When I shared my grief with my father, he felt needed and loved.
Part III: Acceptance
When everyone finally accepted that the alternative treatment wasn’t helping Dad, he appeared relieved. He could let it go. He had an increase in energy and busied himself getting his house in order so that he could leave gracefully. Every day he gave my reluctant mother lessons in how to handle the finances. He gave away everything he owned to people who would enjoy them. He didn’t want to wait until after his death for people to receive his gifts. He wanted to enjoy giving his gifts in person. He invited people to the house, one at a time, so that he could tell them what they meant to him. He shared his feelings and his tears. He planned his memorial service at the church, sharing its contents only with my mom. It was to be a surprise gift to the rest of us. He had me make arrangements with the funeral home to have his body cremated and let them know that he wanted their participation limited to the cremation and supplying a cardboard box for his body. He had a deadline to meet and worked at it with great enthusiasm.
Although my father respected “A Course in Miracles,” he didn’t understand it. It wasn’t his way. His spiritual path was Alcoholic Anonymous. He really enjoyed reaching out to help others through his 12 Step program.
One night, when my father was in pain, I asked him if I could read the Course to him. I always felt there was something healing in its sound current when read aloud, even if a person didn’t understand what it said. I asked him to just feel its vibrations without trying to understand it. He listened patiently as I read, and his pain disappeared! Many times after that, he asked me to read the Course to him when he was in pain.
In the last days of my father’s life, we put a hospital bed in the living room so that he wouldn’t miss anything. He wanted to die at home so that extreme means couldn’t be used to save his life, forcing him to live in pain.
One day my Dad turned to me and said, “I’m so grateful that you’ve let me go. Do you thing your mother is ever going to be ready to let me go?” He looked so distressed that I asked him if he wanted to die, because of the pain. He thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t think anyone really wants to die. But I think we reach a point where it’s okay to die.”
Dad and I had an agreement that I would help him cross over when it was time for his body to die. He knew that I had helped others through the dying process and wasn’t afraid of death myself, because of my own near-death experience.
Part IV: Passing Over
After returning from my father’s house, I fell sound asleep, exhaused. One hour later, my father called to say that he was bleeding internally. It was time for me to help him across. No matter how much I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t make the 10 hour drive back without getting at least a few hours sleep. Reluctantly, I told Dad that he would have to wait. He said, “I’ll wait for you.”
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me when I arrived at my parent’s home the following afternoon. Dad was vomiting fountains of blood and black stuff. My oldest two sons were holding the vomit pan and lovingly cleaning him after each round of heavy projectile vomiting. Dad looked exhausted as he said to me, “I waited.”
I thanked my boys for their loving service and told them I would take over now. Thad, my oldest son, was relieved and left immediately. He is very sensitive and was overwhelmed by my father’s pain as well as his own grief. David is also very sensitive. However, to my surprise, he insisted on staying. “No, I want to stay and take care of him.”
The nurse was there to give him a shot for pain and taught me how to give him the next hourly injection. My father said softly, “In an hour, I won’t hurt anymore.”
The nurse took me outside to tell me how horrible the circumstances of my father’s death were going to be. She wanted someone to be prepared for the nightmare that was to come. The list of expected symptoms and events were long and hideous. The last thing she said was, “Your father’s lungs are filling with blood, and he is going to drowned to death. It will be a horrible death. Like a drowning man, he will hit and lash out as he struggles to breathe.”
Then something in me snapped as I turned to her and said, “No! Peace and fear cannot abide together!” Peace is always shared. So I walked into the house and demanded of God, “I want peace, and I want it now!” And I got peace in an instant. The Course states that “when peace is all you want, peace is all you’ll get.” This peace was so deep and so complete that all my emotions left, and I had the perfect clarity I needed to help my father make his last journey.
I asked Dad, “Are you ready to look for the light?” He nodded his head in agreement. “Then let’s get busy,” I said. I asked everyone to leave the room as I began filling the room with light. I shared with my father what I was seeing as angels appeared to help him across.
Suddenly, I was aware of the presence of Jesus. “Daddy,” I called out. “Jesus is here.” Dad’s head lifted slightly as his eyes opened wide. He was looking up into something with a look of awe, wonder, and peace. He had a look on his face that I had never seen before. I asked for confirmation, “Are you seeing The Light, Daddy?” He moved his head slowly up and down without changing his gaze. I called Mom to come back into the room. “It’s time, Mom.”
He spent his last moments in peace, as Mom held his head in her arms, and he continued to gaze into The Light. Contrary to what the nurse thought was inevitable, he did not fight to take his last breath. He didn’t bother to take that last breath. He reached over and gently took my hand, bringing it to his heart, as he quietly and serenely stepped out of his body. Serenity was my father’s goal as an alcoholic, and he died in perfect serenity.
This all happened within an hour of my arrival, just as my father had predicted. He had said, “In an hour, I won’t hurt anymore.” My father had chosen the moment of his death after keeping his agreement to wait for me.
Part V: Staying with Him
We didn’t leave him alone while he was making his transition. We knew he was still present in the room with us. We could feel his life force near his body, even though blood no longer flowed through his veins.
David joined us by Dad’s bed in the living room as we all cried and expressed our love to him. David was quietly sobbing. He didn’t say a word, so I finally asked him, “Do you want to tell Grandpa how much you love him. He can still hear you.” Through tears he said, “I couldn’t say it, so I showed him.” Then I understood why he had insisted on doing the messy task of cleaning up the vomit after my father. My father could be a very critical and difficult man. David had tried to come close to him, but couldn’t. In the end, however, he had found a way to express his love.
With tears rolling down my face, I began reading the last section of the Course to my father. It was his favorite part that began with, “Forget not, once this journey is begun, the end is certain.” The last line is, “The Son is still, and in the quiet God has given him enters his home and is at peace at last” (Epilogue, Teacher’s Manual 91-92).
We wanted to continue to support my father and help make his transition as loving as possible. We didn’t want to abandon him or his body. The body was the form he identified with as himself, even though he no longer lived there. He needed time to let go of his identification with the body. We didn’t want him forced to watch his body being drained of blood, pumped full of embalming fluids, or mutilated, while he was still attached to it in any way. We were prepared to break with tradition to give him all the time and space he needed to make a safe and graceful transition.
We complied with the law by letting the morticians come to the house and inspect his body. However, we didn’t let them remove it. By law, we were required to dispose of the body within 24 hours, but we weren’t required to remove it from our home. This was our time to be with Dad and his body. We made arrangements for the mortician to pick up his body when we were ready for the cremation. We chose to stay with all parts of him until then. While we knew that Dad wasn’t his body, it was the only form of him that we related to. We didn’t cover his head with a sheet. His body hadn’t suddenly become offensive. It had no odor, even though we kept it with us for about 18 hours on a hot summer day.
It was comforting to all of us to stay together like this. It gave us time to spend alone with him, sharing with him whatever we still needed to say. My brother, Don, didn’t arrive until several hours after his death, so Don was especially grateful for this time alone with Dad. Don slept on the couch next to his bed.
The next morning, the whole family was feeling complete with Dad and grateful for the experience. Don and I went out to pick up the death certificate. When we returned and walked in the front door, I was shocked to see the body totally different. I exclaimed, “Why that’s a corpse!” My father’s presence was no longer a part of this body.
When I touched the body, I discovered that the rigormortis, which had been there previously, was completely gone. This was confirmation my father had let go of his attachment to the body. Fear was no longer present in his body. A mortician in Iowa told me that rigormortis has no known physical cause, because it can’t be detected under a microscope. He confirmed my theory that rigormortis is evidence of fear or attachment and is present as long as a person is still hanging onto the body. He said rigormortis sets in immediately in the body of an accident victim, while it may not set in at all in the body of someone who has been in a coma for a long time. A person who has been comatose for a long time has already stopped identifying with the body. When people have been prepared to die for some time, rigormortis usually sets in a few hours after death and leaves again some hours later, usually within 18 to 24 hours after death.
We called the morticians to come and get the body. My brother lovingly accompanied it all the way to the crematory. Later, we planted a new tree with my father’s ashes fertilizing the roots to bring new life.
Part VI: Memorial Service
We broke with many other traditions surrounding death. We didn’t let the funeral home do anything but arrange the flowers at the church and print the programs for the memorial service. The funeral director tried to make us believe we had to use services that we didn’t want or need. In desperation, he finally offered his services free of charge, which we refused. I don’t think he wanted us to set a new trend that made him expendable.
The day of my father’s memorial service was a joyous one for our family. We had completed our grieving process with gratitude and wanted to share the healing we had received through it. We wanted others to know that death doesn’t have to be fearful.
Against the protest of the funeral director, we drove ourselves to the church. When we arrived, a hearse was parked in front. My brother quietly asked the driver to remove the hearse. Inside, the funeral director was busy handing out programs, even though we had told him our father’s AA buddy’s were going to be the ushers. My brother took the programs out of the funeral director’s hands and lovingly said, “You are a friend of my fathers. He would be glad that you are here. Please, take a seat and be comfortable.” My brother handed out the programs while I helped him greet people as they arrived.
During the service, the minister told everyone, “This family is most unusual. They have had the opportunity to work through much of their grief together, but they know that you haven’t had any time to grieve. So, instead of filing out the back of the church after the service, as is customary, the family has requested that you join them at the front. They want to help support you with your grief, too.”
The service my father had planned was beautiful. He had selected a poem about a ship sailing off over the horizon. Though the ship was disappearing from sight on one shore, it was not really gone. For on another shore, it was just beginning to appear.
Then he had a woman sing a song I wrote called, “Love Every Moment.” He said it expressed how he felt about life. The chorus lines are, “We have no past, and we have no future. All we really have is now. So don’t you waste it with unhappiness. Just turn all your thoughts into love, and love every moment of the day.”
©1984-2014 Kalie Marino, 215-672-1599