On October 2, my father would have been 91. When he died twelve years ago of pancreatic cancer, I wasn’t there. My older sister, Debbie, and younger brother had the privilege of watching our father die.
Yes, a privilege. A profound moment of intimacy. A learning experience. But it took time before Debbie reached that level of acceptance and could finally move on.
I decided to share her story, partially because it’s my father’s birthday in a few days, and partially because you might be able to relate to what she felt. A friend, Tionna, who recently lost her younger brother to a massive stroke, can relate.
In one specific way, her experience was like Debbie’s.
“I Didn’t Want to be There”
“I didn’t want to be there,” Debbie said. “But you know daddy. He was all about order and form. It was important that the oldest and the youngest be there. It had meaning for him.”
A couple of days before he passed, our family gathered at his home in Pennsylvania. “I want you to go home,” he told me before he could no longer speak. Did he think I couldn’t handle his last moments? If so, he might’ve been right.
His request spared me from watching our father die, and my predominant memory would always be of the time we shared six weeks before he passed.
That weekend, my dad started at-home hospice but wanted a new pick-up truck even though he knew his days were numbered. So, we went shopping. He bought a Chevy Silverado, and then he, my stepmother, husband, and I spent the next several hours cruising the valleys and mountains of Pennsylvania.
He felt relatively good, the air smelled clean, and the early-spring flowers were in bloom.
A Different Experience
Debbie’s memories, at least initially, were far different.
“He was looking at the mountains, making faces, doing hand gestures that looked like he was drinking,” Debbie said, remembering that pre-dawn morning, sitting at his bedside. “The cat was in bed with him. Snowball circled around and then jumped … and within a few minutes the death rattle started.”
By 7 a.m., he was gone, my sister, brother, and stepmother at his side.
“He looked like he was taking a nap.” But when the undertaker came to take his body, realization struck. Debbie broke down.
It took a year before she could summon other memories, even those of our dad yelling at us when we were kids. Anything was better than watching our father die. “I kept seeing the whole thing over and over again. I couldn’t let it go and it wasn’t healthy. She prayed, “Lord, I’m not focused on life. I’m focused on death. Help me.”
God did help her move past the experience of watching our father die.
“I was afraid, and the fear of death, the unknown, drove me. But God doesn’t want us to be afraid of anything. For me, embracing that understanding was huge,” Debbie said. “I was able to let the memories go. And now I appreciate just how much of a privilege it had been being with him when he passed. It was special.”
The Final Goodbye
Like my sister, Tionna initially couldn’t block the images of her brother, Tony, taking his final breath at age 52. The moment played continuously inside her head for days.
“Those visuals aren’t tormenting me now,” she said. “Now, all I think about is what he might’ve been thinking before he passed.”
Days before the massive stroke, Tionna spent the day with her brother who’d recently gotten a pacemaker. “We were sitting on his bed, making jokes. We talked and talked and talked. ‘Sister, I’m not going to live one day without you or (Tionna’s other brother). That’s how this is going down.’”
“Bye-bye. That’s the last word I ever heard him say,” Tionna said. “Do you know the hardest part? I always thought I’d leave first. I always thought he’d be involved in my life. That’s not my truth anymore.”
Acceptance for her is understanding that each day takes her farther from the day Tony left … and closer to when she’ll see him again.
Can you relate to Debbie and Tionna? Death and dying are hard and each person experiences it differently. Share your experiences below or on my social media.