On January 17, 2016 at 1:30 AM I watched my father enter the gates of heaven after a 7 year battle with Stage 4 base of the tongue cancer. While his death was “beautiful” his battle was horrific. My father, my best friend, my hero, suffered endlessly. Although he was “cancer free” when he passed, the severe radiation treatments he bravely endured destroyed his body. He spent the last 3 years of his life chocking on what little saliva he had left. Many times it would enter his lungs and give him aspiration pneumonia. He would have horrible pain fits screaming in pain. The last year of his life he was housebound and the last 4 months of his life he was on hospice. My father died with my mother kissing his forehead and my sister and I holding each of his hands. He told us our entire lives, and throughout the night of his passing, to remember he will always love us and he loves us more.
I thought my father’s battle with cancer was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to endure, but I was wrong. Losing my father is by far the most difficult moment in my life. No matter how hard you try, you cannot prepare yourself for the gravity of death, for losing a parent who was not just a parent but your best friend, your hero and your biggest fan in life. Growing up my father had a saying, “If it’s not fatal we don’t care.” As a kid, I never understood what that meant. As a woman who just recently lost her Dad I get it! As the days go on the pain gets deeper and I miss my Dad more. The numbness is wearing off, and I am slowly realizing my father is gone and despite all the signs he’s throwing my way, he’s no longer on this earth.
Since my father’s death I’ve found the most beautiful fluffy white feathers in the oddest places, even falling right from my ceiling. I’ve woken up to beautiful glowing lights. Lights will start flickering when I walk by and I’ve had the most vivid dreams of him. As I’m writing this, I can smell cigarette smoke. My Dad was not a smoker and neither am I, but my grandparents were, and I’ve been smelling smoke since the night he passed. My heart is still shattered and I still miss my father terribly.
A question I’ve asked myself since January 17th is, “Why are people so afraid of those that are grieving?” We ALL grieve, yet for so many it’s the giant white elephant in the room. I’m learning you have some friends and family who are in it for the long haul, they are your glue, and they hold you up while you are falling apart. These are the people who are there no matter what, they are angels on earth and I’m forever grateful for them.
Then you have some people who hound you during the first few days. When my father took his last breath, I lost my voice. I couldn’t speak nor did I want to. I felt broken and shattered and needed to somehow process what had just happened. Sometimes you have this small group of people stalk you and as soon as the dirt is tossed on the coffin, they vanish. I’m sure their intentions are good. Perhaps they are fearful that we will harm ourselves or vanish, but for as much as a social person I am, when my Dad passed, I became very private. I needed to be alone. I needed to mourn alone. Something as simple as speaking became impossible. Each time I would try to say something I would sob. For me, my father was gone and my world stopped rotating that night. Lastly, you have some people who you really thought were friends, some are even family members, who are afraid to acknowledge the death of your loved one. People who you spent special occasions with, people who MET your loved one, and yet it’s like they don’t even know they died. I mean didn’t you see the obituary? I even posted it to Facebook! I want to ask them, “Do you think that by not acknowledging the death of my beloved father you’re helping me heal?” While we don’t want a pity party a simple “sorry for the loss of your Dad” would really mean a lot. I mean this is the man who raised me and to be quite honest I’m lost right now and my heart is shattered in about 10 million pieces. So by you not mentioning my Dad really just shows that you lack empathy and are really quite ignorant. I know what some people are thinking, if you’ve never lost someone you don’t understand. I don’t completely agree. If you’re an adult you should have some simple empathy. But as I grieve I’m seeing so many lack this emotion.
As the days go on, the immediate family begins to learn how to live again with a huge gaping hole in our hearts. Slowly, we begin to go through our deceased loved ones belongings and my goodness does it hurt. It’s like you’re in pain all the time. You’re sad all the time. And no one WANTS to be sad. But you wake up each morning, open your eyes and remember a significant part of your life is gone. You learn how to cope, how to survive without this person.
Prior to losing my Dad I never once thought, “What do you do with a deceased person’s hairbrush?” Then one afternoon in January after my father passed, I was standing in his bathroom smelling his hairbrush. I mean like taking big whiffs because it was HIM and his dry skin on that brush. I wear my father’s wedding band around my neck and put his sweatshirt on when I’m feeling sad. I keep his eyeglasses on my night stand and a mason jar of all the white feathers that have crossed my path since he passed. When I’m really sad, a white feather always manages to appear out of thin air. On one particular day a feather came floating right from my ceiling. I can feel my father’s presence all around me and yet I’m still so sad.
My mother, his wife of 44 years, looks lost all the time. My parents were always together and she was his caregiver for the past 7 years. On numerous occasions my father would say, “I’m alive because of your mother, never forget that.” My parents shared a love that was a once in a lifetime kind of love. My parents knew everything about one another.They were soulmates. My father left beautiful love notes throughout the house for my mother, many that we are still finding. Watching my mother grieve and try to survive without my father is heartbreaking and frightening.
If you have a family member or a friend grieving, let me offer some advice. We need you in the months following the burial. We want you to ask about our deceased loved ones. I promise you we will not explode at the mention of their name, as a matter of a fact we WANT to remember them. Honoring my Dad is a priority to me; his dying wish was for his grandbabies to always remember him. So please do not forget my Dad. And now for helping the surviving spouse... call them, send cards, show them you CARE. The immediate family is in a complete fog during the first few days; while we appreciate all the love and support at the time of the death, please remember it’s the spouse who has to go back to the home where this deceased once lived. It’s the spouse who has to sort through the belongings, it’s the spouse who is sleeping in the bed where the deceased once slept, and it’s the spouse who is staring at that empty chair every day. Each phone call, text and card we receive is like a big blanket of love wrapped around us. To our little army of supporters, THANK YOU a million times. To our little army of supporters who call and send cards on our firsts without my Dad, THANK YOU. We all grieve, but with the love and support of others, it shows us that somehow we will survive this and we are not alone.
Lisa Ingrassia is the Director of Events at Zenith Marketing Group, an insurance brokerage firm. She is passionate about sharing her father’s journey with cancer and bringing attention the difficult path a caregiver must take. She has written guest articles for the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders, The Mighty and Her View From Home. Lisa is also a Huffington Post blogger. You can follow Lisa’s grief journey on Facebook: facebook.com/lisamingrassia
Fun Fact: She’s obsessed with her Boston Terrier Diesel and loves the color blue.