Column - Lessons about death and lossIt was like getting socked in the gut, hard, three times. Only much worse.
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
It was like getting socked in the gut, hard, three times. Only much worse.
First, my mom suffered a massive stroke this past September 11. She had to be transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul and a few days later, she survived a breakthrough surgical procedure called a brain bypass. Arteries from her scalp were used to repair the stroke-damaged ones in her brain.
Then, while my mom was slowly recovering, my 85-year-old dad’s health faltered. We had to take him to the Douglas County Hospital and the prognosis wasn’t good – late-stage leukemia. We moved him to hospice care at Knute Nelson and he passed away on October 19.
Three weeks later, right before she was to undergo a routine colonoscopy, my 73-year-old mom died at the Douglas County Hospital from blood clots in the lung. It was a complete shock. She had been doing well in her stroke recovery. Her speech was still mixed up but she was saying new words every day and had regained almost all of her physical movements. In fact, the day before her death, we had a great visit with her. She even sang Happy Birthday to me.
The out-of-the-blue stroke and sudden loss of my parents – wonderfully kind and loving parents who had been married for 52 years – took an emotional toll that I never would have gotten through without family, friends, coworkers and faith. I’m not over the grieving process yet, of course. From among the shattered pieces of grief I’ve been sifting through, I’ve learned a few lessons about death and loss. Here are some that come to mind:
•Emotions run in waves. One minute, you can be OK, almost your old self, and then, without warning, the sharp edges of grief return. You never know what will trigger it – a TV commercial featuring one of your mom’s favorite foods, hearing a familiar phrase your dad used to say, the sudden thought that Thanksgiving is coming and things will never be the same.
•Laughter is good medicine. As horrible of an ordeal as the last few weeks have been, I’ve been able to laugh – hard – more than a few times. Funny little stories my siblings shared as we traveled from hospital to hospital provided a much-needed release. A story my sister told of hiring someone who turned out to be an actual witch (cape, coven and all) brought tears of laughter. I felt a little guilty at first but then I just let the tears stream down. It felt good.
•That old cliché about the importance of having a “support system” is very true. The cards, the letters, the e-mails, the kind words from everyone who knew my parents were like a soothing balm for the soul. The ones recalling specific memories of mom and dad were especially comforting. The outpouring of support from the community of Parkers Prairie, where my parents lived, was phenomenal. They brought food, raked my folks’ yard, gave hugs and offered encouragement. I’ll never forget that.
•Another cliché – taking things one day at a time – is also oh-so-true. When a loved one is dying or ailing, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, dwelling on all the unknowns that lie ahead – their medical care and recovery, funeral arrangements, financial decisions, selling personal property, paying off debt, moving all the stuff out of a house. Instead, focus on breaking the tasks down to manageable chunks of time.
•Funeral home owners and pastors are a special kind of people. Although they deal with grief and death on a regular basis, they were genuinely compassionate, caring and a source of strength and hope for our family. One of the pastor’s comments, for instance, helped us realize that our tears were not for our dad – he was in a much better place – but for us, simply because we will miss him so much.
•Although it may seem morbid, family members should discuss their funeral preferences beforehand, what kind of burial they want, whether the casket should be opened or closed, the hymns to sing at the service, pallbearer arrangements, and a biggie – their finances. Fortunately, our parents had thought many of these things out, which made the process a lot easier.
•Remember to take care of yourself. Try to get enough sleep. Don’t skip meals. As my mom, a cook at the Parkers Prairie Nutrition Center, used to say, “Eat healthy!” I even went in for a physical in the middle of the whole ordeal and found out, not too surprisingly, that my blood pressure was way too high. I’m now getting it back under control.
•Lastly, remember to hug your parents tight, today. Let them know how much you love them and how important they are in your life. You’ll never know how much longer they’ll be there to return the hug.