74 Days into Grieving My Dad

Dear Dad,

I miss you so much in ordinary little things…I’ll be deciding what to make for dinner, and thinking I’ll make something you like, and then suddenly remember that you can’t just drop in for dinner anymore. I will see someone in the corner of my eye wearing a reflective vest, and think for a second that it’s you, riding on your scooter. If a car goes by that looks like yours, my heart skips a beat, wondering if perhaps it’s you coming to visit. I still think, “Oh, maybe Dad can drive me to this appointment,” and then have to remember you can’t.

I was there when you were dying. I arranged your funeral and wept over your ashes when I picked up your urn from Kearney. I was there when you were buried, but my head and my heart are having a hard time catching up. It’s like I can’t really realize you’re gone. Often I say to myself, “I should really call Dad and catch up,” and then I remember that I disconnected your phone after you died, and why can’t I remember that? I feel like someone who is constantly waking up from a happy dream, only to have reality slap me in the face.

So many things remind me of you: the garden beds you built out front, filled with brave spring bulbs peeking out, and the planters in the backyard by the garage, your worksop, which contain the mournful remains of summer sunflowers and tomatoes, now scraggly and black, the little hooks on my cupboards which you hung up for my washcloths, and the many books on my homeschool bookshelves, which you were always bringing for the kids, whom you adored. It is hard to realize you’re gone because there are so many signs of your loving presence everywhere.

One night shortly after you died I couldn’t sleep, and went to read on the couch. I pulled a book from my Montgomery bookshelf: “Emily Climbs.” In it was an inscription from you to me as a child, “to my dearest ‘star,’ love + hugs–Dad.” Emily Starr was also very close to her gentle father, and lost him at a young age. Reading this always made me cry as a kid, because it felt like my pain in being separated from you after the divorce. I was four then, and now I’m forty, but I’ll always be your little girl, and being apart from you still hurts terribly, especially each time I momentarily forget, only to remember again. 

Loving you always, and waiting to give you a huge hug in Heaven,

Anna

The Bravery of Surrender: On the Death of my Beloved Father

There is a common misconception that safety lies in control, and that the more powerful you are, the more you can control. But one thing my Dad’s recent death from cancer taught me is the bravery of surrender.

Let me back up a little to his last month or so of life. None of us realized quite how sick he was, although we had our suspicions. All of us, his family and friends, wanted to somehow rescue him, stop the disease, and make him get better again. After all, he had already recovered from the brink of death twice in the last five or six years.

But Dad, in his quiet, firm way, never making any drama or fuss, already knew. He spent this last year, this year of horrid covid isolation, preparing his apartment for me: purging papers, decluttering, labelling, sorting, highlighting his Marie Kondo books and covering his walls with mindmaps and plans for his home, putting everything in its place so it would be easier for me to deal with when he passed.

He kept telling me enthusiastically how many old papers he had sorted and gotten rid of, and still I didn’t realize. Perhaps it was too difficult for him to tell his only daughter the words “I’m dying” out loud.

When we went to the oncologist, and heard that his PSA’s were skyrocketing, I think he had confirmation that his fight was coming to an end, and he could now let go. He spoke to me of the peace of surrendering, but I stubbornly encouraged him to keep trying. His reaction was not despair, although I know now that the news hurt him deeply, but was his acceptance of a bigger plan, in which he no longer had to grip the wheel so tightly.

Page from my Dad’s journal

At first, when the pain intensified and his body no longer wanted food, he wanted to hide away by himself. He told me he felt like a grumpy bear who kept getting woken up while trying to hibernate.

Sketch from my Dad’s journal

But when I begged him, weeping over the phone, if I could not come and do something to make him feel better, not offering food or solutions, but merely comfort, he admitted he would perhaps like to be sung to.

So the next day, with the promise of a song and a gentle massage, he let me come and see him, lying in bed with his cozy toque and scarf, and very little able to move.

The next few days were a painful dance of trying to soothe, while also encouraging him to try to keep eating…pulling out all my best mom tricks, giving little sips of juice, convincing him to let me feed him minuscule bites of kiwi on a tiny grapefruit spoon.

“It’s your baby bird diet,” I joked, while blinking back tears.

After three days of this, I was able to speak to his oncologist over the phone and ask him the hard question:

“What is my role doctor, to try to save him, or simply to soothe him in his parting?”

His clear answer was given gently and honestly: “To soothe. Within a month, he will be with the angels.”

I was devastated—but also freed. No longer did I have to fight, but to surrender, and to walk my Dad as gently as I could to the gates of Heaven.

And Dad, you let me walk you there. You didn’t hide your weakness from me, nor your pain.

A few weeks before you had been hard on yourself, feeling like a terrible disciple, because you’d fall asleep every time you tried to meditate, even now, as you were trying to prepare your spirit for the next world.

Having a gentle, loving father like you has helped me understand the tenderness of God, so I said to you: “But Dad, don’t feel bad. God knows your heart, and he knows all you’re going through. He knows you want to spend time with him. Just tell him so before you settle in to pray, and it won’t matter if you fall asleep. Just imagine you’d come over to read to your granddaughter, and she, being only two, fell asleep on your lap. Would you be mad at her?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, it’s the same with our father God. He loves you and is so happy when you seek to be close to him, even when you’re asleep.”

Not long after, you found the courage to not only be a little child before God, but before me. You let me soothe your aches and gently stroke your head until you fell asleep. Thank you, Dad, for this honour.

Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to getting more help, when things became too much for me alone, playing nurse when all I know how to do is be a mom. The bravest thing you did was give up the comfort and control of your own home to enter hospice care, so that I would not have to worry that you’d be alone, in pain and unable to get a sip of water at 2 am.

You surrendered and let yourself be carried to the hospice by the friendly ambulance guys, and after six more days, in an atmosphere of peace and prayer, you let yourself be carried to Heaven.

Since you let me accompany you to the steps of Heaven, I know you’re still so close to me while I’m on earth. Together we struggled, we surrendered, and in the end, everything was perfect.

Grapefruit Spoons

Going to your apartment shortly after you died

I gather your important papers,

the things I’ll need to help take care of everything for you,

but I don’t want to touch anything else

or unsettle your calmly organized cupboards

covered with labels in your sweet hand:

“Tea,” Spices,” “Cups,” “Bowls.”

My sweetest scatterbrain Dad,

who worked so heroically hard this past year

—reading Marie Kondo and likely highlighting half the pages—

to make everything organized for me

because you knew you were dying

even when I couldn’t let myself believe it.

To me your home feels like a shrine

a testament to all the things you did last—

where you hung your bathrobe, your plaid shirt,

the dirty baseball cap that you’d wear doing carpentry in my garage.

I want to hug everything—

the blankets and sweaters that smell like you—

but don’t want to take anything

except the fancy grapefruit spoons with jagged little edges,

tiny teeth which I used to scoop out that half kiwi

which you allowed me to feed you slowly

your last week at home,

and that little quarter of yellow mango,

your baby bird diet

which I desperately hoped would somehow sustain you

when your body was too tired to eat

and your soul was ready to surrender.

These little grapefruit spoons

I tuck in my purse

and flee your empty apartment

where I wish you would come back

and let me feed you again.

A Tiny Piece of Night Sky

Right now I don’t wear mourning black

because as I told the kids before the funeral,

Grandpa loved the bright colours of gardens

and flowers in the sunshine,

so dress for him.

But I do wear around my neck

a black necklace studded with tiny stars

—piece of night sky stolen by faeries—

to remind myself in all dark moments

to seek the sparkle.

It’s not a bright, dawn-rosy piece of Heaven

but a scrap of far-off night sky,

piercingly cold and beautiful,

the kind you look up at in silence

longing for the things that do not perish.

My heart thumps near my necklace,

aching to burst forth from my chest

and reach this forever with you,

beating its warm little drum

to the echoes of eternity.

Executor

Executor,

someone you love has just died

but there is no time for tears.

You ought to be eating ice cream on the kitchen floor,

surrounded by crunched up Kleenex,

but you’re swimming in a sea of papers instead.

Executor,

someone you love has just died—

now call strangers, the government, charities

and tell them so.

Accept scores of condolences

from people with calm voices.

Thank them politely

and get on with business.

Executor,

someone you love has just died.

Pay the bills,

plan the funeral

plan the burial

plan the epitaph.

Capture in two lines

the life of someone you love

who has just died.

Executor,

where are your tears?

Just When

Just when the weight

became crushing

and I no longer knew what to do

to make anything better at all,

and the pain was becoming too much

for you to bear

and me to see,

it lifted.

Just when words failed me

and I was running out of songs to sing you

while I massaged your aching back

or gently washed your face,

a comforter came

who spoke such words of consolation

that he drew from your own aching heart

words of hope.

Just when I cried out that I could not carry on,

could no longer bear

these birth pangs of your transition

into a new and deeper life,

the pain ceased—

a gentle day came

and you slipped out of this world

sweetly, like a baby in sleep.

Just when I felt so inadequate

to bring you any closer to peace,

everyone’s prayers kicked in

and suddenly lifted you,

as I’d promised,

straight up to Heaven

in a hot air balloon

filled with love.

Axe

Sometimes in the busyness of the day

I forget for a few minutes

and don’t feel the ache,

but when I first wake up

from the dream of sleep

to the nightmare of real life,

it is there

—the axe in my chest—

the cleaving pain

of remembering

my beloved father is dying

and all I can do is sing to him,

mother him,

tenderly stroke his head,

pray and cry,

and hold his sweet hands

still warm.

Easter Accompanies the Suffering Heart with Hope

When I was in the depths of grief after losing my baby daughter Josephine five years ago, I found it was very hard to go through holidays that focus primarily on being joyful. The pressure to be happy was too much. Christmas is cosy and lovely and normally a huge favourite of mine, but not when the pain is still too raw. In times of struggle, I prefer Easter.

Why? Those of you who know me might be thinking of one thing: chocolate! All the chocolate without all the work of Christmas. I am definitely a believer chocolate’s ability to comfort and to express affection when given. I almost always include some chocolate in the grief baskets my friend Julia and I make for bereaved moms, along with my baby loss poetry book and other encouraging books and self-care items, but no, chocolate isn’t the reason.

Although these days, when things are extra stressful around the world, there are times when I’d like to simply bury my entire face in a Tuxedo chocolate layer cake, there is something chocolate cannot do: accompany me in my suffering. Share my grief. Give dignity to my tears, by saying, “I, too, have suffered. You are not alone.” This is something God can do. This is something Jesus does from the cross.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.” – St. John Paul II

Despite all the wild and crazy things that happen in a complex world where there is human freedom, and also the realities of pain and death, we can be consoled by knowing that we do not suffer alone, for we have a God who is compassionate. As I would tell my kids in homeschool, compassion comes from the Latin “cum” (with) “passio” (I suffer). But why would God want to enter our mess, instead of remaining “aloof in icy splendour,” as the archbishop of Toronto poetically asked yesterday?

Love. A personal love for each person ever created. A tender love for you and for me individually. A desire to accompany us in our hardest moments, and to help us bear them.

I have experienced this same desire myself. After losing Josephine, I had an intense desire to be with others who were in pain, to accompany them in their mourning, to hold their hands on the long road to recovery. I could not make their pain disappear, but I could feel it with them, and let them know their grief was valid–was in fact a beautiful sign of their immense love for those lost.

So if you are in mourning this Easter, I encourage you to reach out to the source of love through prayer. God truly cares about your struggles, and wants to help you carry your crosses, as once he carried his own: with blood, and sweat and tears, but also with the dignity of one who gave his life for others freely, out of love. By reaching out to console others in pain, you, too, share in the healing power of God’s generous love, a love stronger than death.

Stardust

Yesterday, my sweet neighbour’s only daughter died of cancer, leaving behind a loving husband and two little boys. I am so crushed by this news, so in her honour, and in honour of all the many precious people who have recently died, I thought I would share this poem from my book unexpected blossoming: a journey of grief and hope.

As some of you already know, I wrote this book of poetry after losing my baby daughter Josephine. Peace be with all of you who are suffering the loss of loved ones in this crazy time.

Stardust

If it’s true that we are dust

and that from the moment of birth

we are heading towards death,

then are not all our words

like a dying breath—

an exhalation of hope

that our voices will be heard

after we’re gone?

Like the light of stars

shining for years,

sending light across the universe

long after the star has burnt out.

Are we perhaps,

though weak and frail,

yet destined for eternity,

little flurries of stardust?

Loving Through the Fear: A Mortal Mission

It is strange how this virus has woken us up to a very obvious but often ignored fact: we are mortal. This reminder of our fragility has caused us to panic and scramble, as if it were possible to avoid this inevitable outcome of our lives–their ending. The ending has been there all along, but not in such a prevalent, “hiding around the corner” kind of way.

So how should we respond to this intense affirmation that our lives are a brief and precious gift?

With love. With love that is stronger than death. With love that connects us all. With love that can reach across the globe into every trembling heart. With many, many, concrete acts of love. It there were ever a time for “random acts of kindness,” it is now. Except they are not random; they are very much the point of our existence: to affirm the irreplaceable nature of every human life, and to honour each person with our little acts of affection and and kindness, to find in the face of the poor, the lonely and the stranger, the face of God.

Imagine for just a moment what might happen at this uniquely uncharted point in time if we all choose to set aside politics, agendas, finger pointing, conspiracies, and our own (very real & very different) fears.

What if we choose Right Now to take care of one another and put compassion, love, and service above all else? What if we turn our necessary distance into something even bigger than saving lives?

An Open Letter to Humanity

Everyone will do this in their own way, living with a sense of personal mission to serve their families, their friends and their communities with all the talents and passion they can muster. It is by loving that we mortal beings unite ourselves to the Immortal One, the fount of life and source of love, and come to share in a life beyond the fragile one we have here.

Let us burn our life’s candle brightly and share its light with those around us. Then, whenever its light is snuffed out, we will continue to glow in the hearts of people whom we have loved.