Grief: An Unruly Companion.
“You are the finest, loveliest, most tender, and beautiful person I have ever known — and even that is an understatement.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
For me there are simply no short cuts through the grief. This year marks two years since my beloved dad left this earthly realm.
By some misguided estimations, I should be over it by now, or quietly learning to live with it. I’m not over it, nor will I ever be. I have learned to live with this loss as one learns to live with the loss of a limb — a part of my being that was once solidly there, that still feels a part of me and yet is clearly, achingly gone.
I have no list of 10 helpful steps on how to overcome grief. I have no sage advice to offer. Some days I feel the comfort of his presence; some days I am inconsolable. Some days all I can do is weep, wail and walk. So I take refuge in nature. To the vastness of rolling hills, the serenity of old trees or the wild roar of the ocean.
I talk to my dad all the time, but when I’m alone and quiet in the hills, then I feel that he talks to me.
And that’s how it goes. Over and over.
I am learning to live with the raw homesickness for my dad that only he can fill, but some days the grief is still so tender and taunting that it unnerves and unsettles me to the core. Even at the best of times, grief can be an unruly and unpredictable companion. Some days, seemingly out of the blue, it can literally bring me howling to my knees.
Then there are the special holidays and the anniversaries. They can really do you in.
And all the memories, a lifetime of memories. Then the memory of the day and moment he died. That memory will never leave me. Sometimes it haunts me and hunts me down. It took months before I could replace the memory of that moment with a memory of my dad healthy and in his prime.
In the last 36 hours of his life, he struggled till the very end. The turbulence of watching him try to break free of his frail body was unbearable for my family and I. There is nothing harder than watching a cherished loved one in pain and not being able to do anything tangible to take it away.
I have never felt such a sense of excruciating helplessness. Words of encouragement to let go and follow the light seemed trite and went seemingly unheard. The medications given to him did little to help the agitated ripping at his night shirt and sheets as he labored through all the terrifying and beautiful stages of dying.
And then, sweet mercy, his breathing gradually calmed down and the anguish in his face finally softened.
Then came a few moments of silence followed by the great whoosh sound that filled the room as he took his last breath, and we watched the mysterious unwinding of his body from his soul. As his soul broke free, my stepmum Jean and I were lifted out of our seats and together we bade him him a final farewell.
As painful as this experience was, it was also the most sacred moment of my life. How grateful I felt to have been a witness to his life and his death. And how unsettling to be in the presence of death and yet feel so alive, so broken with sorrow and yet so riveted by the magnitude and majesty of pure undying love.
My dad was not a rich or powerful man by worldly standards. He was shy and self-conscious as a boy and as a young man in the Royal Air Force. He was a late bloomer. Singing had always been his great passion, and at fifty, after a wake-up call of angina, he began to live out his dream. He sang in local pubs, calling himself Tommy Mac.
He had name cards and flyers made up that featured him standing in front of a microphone wearing a dark pink jacket, black shirt and a burgundy tie.
With my husband as his coach, he eagerly practiced developing stage presence and learned the art of interpreting song lyrics. It was serious business to him. He often said that he wished he’d had the confidence to give it a go earlier in his life, but he sure did his best to make up for lost time.
At seventy he had an emergency quadruple bypass on his heart. He came to LA for a three-week visit that turned into a three-month recuperation. As he was about to be wheeled into surgery that had no guarantee of survival, he turned to my family and I, and he wept unabashedly like a child.
Holding our hands tightly, he said that if he came through the surgery that he would treasure every moment of life and never again hold back his true feelings.
I was privileged to nurse him back to health after the success of his heart surgery.
During those three months, we became closer than ever — he wasn’t just my dad, he was a dear friend. With his newly functioning heart, sharing and expressing his regrets, fears and desires became an integral part of his healing. Sometimes, I actually had to say, “Dad, too much information,” as he could get a bit carried away with intimate details.
But I loved our uncensored talks and slow walks on the beach. I loved making his favorite meals. I loved seeing him light up with life and health once again.
Two years after his surgery, dad returned to Los Angeles to marry my stepmum Jean. The service was conducted by the same Catholic priest who had performed last rites on him the night before he went into surgery two years before.
His heart lasted almost another decade, and he lived his life with more zest and spirit than many men half his age. During those years he loved deeply, lived fully and sang his heart out any chance he got. But when that heart gradually ran out of juice, my dad was not ready to let go of his life.
He was a deeply religious man and not afraid to die, he just staunchly believed that he still had more living to do and did not want to leave his beloved Jean behind.
When there remained a glimmer of hope that he may make it out of hospital, he would talk about how much he looked forward to a long walk in the woods and the nice cold beer waiting for him at the end. We talked about the exotic foods he wanted to try, new songs he wanted to learn and far away places he wanted to travel to.
It was not to be. In the weeks leading up to his passing, he was surrounded by close family who cradled him with a blanket of love befitting a man so deeply cherished. At one point, after he awoke from a nap, he looked intently at all of us gathered around his bed and said, simply but firmly, “Life is love — that’s everything.”
During those last days I spent alone with dad at the hospice, he would spontaneously start singing — softly but clearly, often with his eyes closed. He sang the old English lullaby, Christopher Robin, that he used to sing to my siblings and I when we were children. And then, for some strange reason, he started to sing George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord.
In all his years, I’d never heard him sing that song. So there we sat, day after day, hand in hand, heart to heart, and together we sang My Sweet Lord over and over as we both silently wept. I felt as if my pummeled heart might explode with uncontainable sadness and unfathomable joy.
Dad, you gave me life, you gave me love, and that is everything.
Angela Paul is an author, model, speaker and life coach whose main focus is on relationships, marriage, life transitions and graceful aging. Her most recent book, The Beauty of Aging: A Woman’s Guide to Joyful Living, inspires and empowers women of all ages to fearlessly embrace the wisdom and beauty of aging. Angela was born and raised in Yorkshire, England, lived in Tokyo for many years and currently resides in Los Angeles. She is a long time meditator of over 30 years, travels extensively and spends as much time as she can at the beach in Malibu. A lover of solitude and nature Angela considers herself to be a Highly Sensitive Person who also joyfully exhibits occasional shades of a wild extrovert. She rarely Tweets, but you can follow her on Facebook or check out her website.