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.
Thank you, sister. Thank you for bearing your soul. I hope someone finds peace in your words.
Angie Riegel Cooney
That was beautiful Lori.
Thank you, Angie. I appreciate you reading the story. Hope all is well with you.
Beautiful words comfort as i struggle with death knowing our loved ones getting closer to leaving didn’t struggle now its evident there is a heaven
Denise, I’m so glad the experiences described in this blog comforted you. And yes, I do believe there is a heaven, which makes letting go so much easier. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
I spent dad’s last four months by his side. I am beyond grateful or hospice. I couldn’t have done it without them. There were times I didn’t think I could do it at all. I knew life would be different without him, and I would miss him, I just had no idea how much. He would have been 90 today! What I would give for his regular 7 pm Sunday nite call❤️
Thank you Lori.
Sandy, happy birthday to your dad…in heaven. I appreciate your observations. How you miss your Sunday night calls with him. He’ll always remain in your heart and memories. Thanks for sharing.
Moira, my sister is articulate…you know that better than anyone. So happy she agreed to share her experience. I think it helps others.
Debbie and Lori. Today, Oct. 2, my Dad passed 47 years ago. Seems like just yesterday he was here, having a beer and a cigarette. I wasn’t with him when he passed, but still kinda feel what Debbie felt.Love you guys.
Audrey, 47 years ago? Wow. Seems like yesterday when Uncle Frank passed…on my dad’s birthday of all days. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. We love you, too.
Greta L. Irvin
What a heart warming story. My Dad passed four years ago on his mother-in-law’s birthday. That was ironic to me since my cousin told me that he was always her favorite son-in-law. When my sisters and I arrived in PA, he was essentially gone but his wife left him on life support so that we could say goodbye. I always hoped that he could hear his last words from us. We stayed until he took his last breath once life support was disconnected. So often I looked back and wished I could have seen him alive and in person before he had his heart attack and was gone. We lived so far apart, him in PA and me in Texas. The visits were far, few and in between. Not ready for him to go but God had other plans for him. Look up often on my walks and say a few words to him. I know that he can hear me. Now, I make sure I talk to my Mom every day, no matter how short the conversation. We too, live thousands of miles apart but the phone keeps us connected. If only she would use Facebook or her cell phone!
Keep up the great writing Lori. Love ya!
Woulda, coulda, should haves … The words we wish we’d said, or the time we wish we’d spent before loved ones passed on. Know the sentiment well, friend. Thank you for your heart-felt story. Love you too.