At 23 I lost my father to Leukemia. Well, that’s not exactly accurate, we lost him to fungal pneumonia. People often pass from an illness when battling blood cancer. This is due to the chemotherapy that is used which lowers the white blood cell count so low that any kind of illness could potentially prove to be fatal.
My dad was 53 when he passed. Young… Too young. At the time my dad departed from us I had just left my first job out of college. I was excited about the job but I knew that those whose leukemia relapsed, had a very low survival rate. I left my job voluntarily to spend time with my dad and I will never regret that decision. Perhaps my dad was right when he told my brother and I that we should not let his illness interrupt our lives. In some ways I think my presence in my father’s last weeks made my own grief that much worse.
My dad was in the hospital for a long time and near the end he was intubated and placed in the ICU. I barely recognized him with all the equipment hooked up to him. I never really got to say goodbye. He was put on a ventilator one day and wasn’t ever able to be removed from it. I was awake when he left us, his body continued to function propped up only by the plethora of machines and drugs he was administered. My inconsolable mother could not bring herself to believe he was gone. We waited for our family Doctor friend to arrive to help her come to terms with his passing. Even after being taken off life support his heart continued to beat due to the massive amount of medications the Dr’s had pushed. As I write this my eyes have welled up, tears are forming and blurring my vision. I feel my heart ache and remember his joyous laughter and how much I miss it.
You couldn’t ask for a better Dad. He was an amazing man who was deeply committed to family. He was something special. This would be evidenced later by the sheer volume of people at his funeral. He did so much for others. While grief is often described as a deep sadness due to the loss of someone close, it is much more than that. I was angry at God for taking him from us. For me though, I would initially bottle up my feelings, resigning myself as the eldest son to keep it together and console my mother and brother and attend to the necessities of funeral arrangements and writing an obituary. My personal grief would have to wait I decided. Well, I waited and waited, and then waited some more. Initially I chose poor coping mechanisms like alcohol and drugs to numb the emptiness I felt after his passing. A few more poor decisions would eventually cause me to seek out counseling for the first time in my life.
I learned that grief is not just sadness, it is not just anger and anxiety inducing, it is all of these. When the unthinkable happens, sometimes we are incapable of properly processing our own emotions. I was a strong, strapping, and invincible 23-year-old who didn’t think he needed any help. Well, was I ever wrong… once I found a counselor I connected with, I began recognizing my own hubris and inability to process this monumental loss in my life. Over the course of the next several months, I learned that I would never “get over it.” Grief sticks with you like gum on the sole of your shoe. You never get used to it, it lingers. What can happen, I learned, is that you can grow- and as you do, the grief you feel dims just a little. The more you grow in your ability to accept, process and name your emotions, the more you begin to remember the good times. The pain that has been so unbearable begins to be replaced by the wonderful memories you have of the one you lost. We never fully let go. We grow and we learn to cherish the time we did have with them.
I had forgotten how to cry at that time in my life. I also knew that when I displayed anger it could be a frightening sight for others to witness. So, I hid my pain and my grief. I chose not to allow others to help me at first. Once I stopped recognizing myself though, I knew I needed help. It was as if I had forgotten how to express such powerful emotions. My own rediscovery of how to grieve was only possible due to the help I received from my counselor at the time. The emotions of grief can be muted or overwhelming, but either way many need assistance in how to accept loss and how to grow in a way that minimizes the impact.
It has been almost 20 years now since my father passed and I still grieve. My hope is that I may help others to process the difficult emotions that arise at the loss of a loved one and help them to not make the mistakes I originally did. We all need help sometimes. I pray that those experiencing a loss recently would be honest with themselves if they are having difficulty and reach out for help. Those of us who have experienced grief in its many forms can be helpful guides for those experiencing this type of loss for the first time. If you are struggling, please reach out to myself or another counselor. We are here for you.