Things are getting real. A few months ago, I participated in a free writing workshop. This led to me joining a writing group that provides insight, coursework and assistance in writing a book. There’s also a contest in which you can submit a book proposal. I don’t anticipate winning but I do hope to receive advice with hopes of maybe securing an agent in the coming year. The deadline is in less than 2-months, with a second chance in December.
So here I am, sitting in yet another amazing coffee shop writing. I’m writing about love and loss and the complexities of navigating grief. This in of itself is not a lighthearted topic. Writing is hard. Putting yourself out there is hard. But, I’ve come to the conclusion, not writing is harder. Writing today is also coming at a full-circle moment.
This week marked 26-years since my mom died. The Minnesota Department of Health also concluded their investigation of the days leading up to my father’s death. My gut was right. Benedictine Health System dropped the ball on many levels. At the core, they wrote my dad off as a very sick man not worthy of their attention or medical care while he was still fighting to live. Enough so, that by the time he received hospital intervention, any hope or dignity was gone and he wished to die. We all know how this story ends.
In December, I wrote about the difficulties reckoning with this. I think we all want to believe there is meaning in life and death. I wanted to believe that if I couldn’t save him, I could at least help someone else’s family going through something similar. At first, DHS dismissed me as nothing more than a nuisance. Their first investigation was a joke at best. Their unresponsiveness and misinformation a signal that bureaucracy is alive and well. This continued for months. Shame on them. My dad and other victims deserve better.
For months, I patiently waited for them to make things right. Legislative intervention, countless emails and pleas to multiple layers of supervisors for them to simply do their job. Last month the finally did. Findings were substantiated, reversed from last fall. Citations were issued. A lackluster response of additional training and chart auditing followed from Benedictine. A well-rehearsed apology and promise to do better with little follow through from DHS. Case closed.
The final investigator on my father’s case apologized for her predecessor and the agency not doing their job. She asked me to not hold it against them. I feel for her because she was doing her job in a system that failed. I admire her for doing her job. Frankly, that’s all I asked of anyone at DHS. I just wish it was the norm and not the exception. Nothing changes the final outcome or what we experienced. No report or blanket apology or admission of guilt brings my father back.
I often find myself wishing that when asked what single moment is the most pivotal in your life, my response isn’t the death of my mom. And now, my dad. At the same time, I keep going back to the reality that despite all of the highs and lows I had with them, I always knew I was loved and they accepted me for whoever I wanted to be.
What an incredible gift to give your children. A gift I hope I pass on to Jake. A gift they instilled in me that I am only fully realizing today. Losing them is still the most pivotal moments of my life, but there are many others that make me who I am today. Things that wouldn’t have happened or been different if I hadn’t experienced this. The truth is, the moments that matter most, often start or end because of loss. I’ve come to believe that’s the price of admission. Life is messy and beautiful and hard and amazing. Grief sucks and the more it sucks means the more amazing the prequel to it was… which makes it suck even more. That’s the premise of my new book. Not so much a book about great loss but all loss we all must navigate.
Today, I want to share my prologue of my new book with you in hopes you’ll send me feedback. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please know it is a work in progress, just like me. And with that:
It Could be Worse: A girlfriend’s guide to loss.
The decision was made in an instant but years in the making. “I love you girls but I cannot keep fighting. Please don’t be mad.”
A glance at the nurse and a plea. “Please. I just want to go in peace.”
Suddenly we are out of time. After years of ups and downs navigating a broken health care system watching my dad fight for his life – and win; and advocating for his life more times than I can count, the decision is made. My sister and I advocate for him one last time. We watch dad initiate hospice and support him with all of our heart while feeling a piece of our heart break. He signs the papers instantly. He cannot nor should he suffer for another second in a system where folks fight to keep him alive, regardless of the physical pain he endures and his desire to die. He is ready.
He tells my sister and I he’s proud of us one last time in a sterile hospital room. A man of few words, he couldn’t have chosen a better book ending to a complicated yet rich life. I do not know it at the time, but I will not see him conscious again.
I should have seen this coming. In my head, I had prepared for it over and over again. I had made time for visits, listened to my dad’s endless stories and jokes, and sought therapy to help navigate the struggles of an aging parent. I had worked through my anger surrounding an amputation and a healthcare system that never understood my father. I had resolved all of the what ifs in my life – the times growing up where I was too busy pursuing my dreams that I missed the simple things. You know… the weekend fishing trips, county fairs, camping, phone calls and lunches. I spent the last ten years making up for those moments. I said everything that needed to be said. But yet, I still find myself in this moment, completely lost. Caught in the in-between. The part where you pray for a quick ending but guilt bubbles up and challenges why you would actually wish your father dead. A friend who knows grief all too well reminds me there is a difference between honoring your dad’s wishes and accepting them.
Later, I find myself alone in the hospice room watching my dad gasp for air. COVID-19 has added a logistical layer of complications in saying good-bye. Science says my dad is on enough morphine that he is comfortable. My heart says he knows I am here. Here. Sharing one last moment with dad.
I choose to use this moment to remember. I remember our fishing opener trips – including the time I was so engrossed in my book that a fish pulled my rod into the lake before I noticed I had caught it. Somehow dad managed to retrieve the rod (with a very tired fish on it). I remember my one successful day of fishing catching Sunnies with dad and how delicious his pan-fried fish tastes. I remember our annual camping trip including the year my girlfriend and I snuck out to meet boys on the beach. My mom had to let us know she knew while my dad just gave us that look. You know – the one dad gives that say a thousand words. It was the same look he gave when I flicked matches into his ice shanty and got removed from a little league softball game for being sassy.
I remember arguing over the cost of a good steak, grapes and a 12-pack of diet coke more than once. I remember the endless conversations about weather where only Google could resolve the temperature differences between my hometown Cloquet, Minnesota and today’s hometown Iron River, Wisconsin. I remember arguing just to argue and then argue about why we were arguing. My dad loved a good debate about nothing. That trait lives on in me.
I remember the endless days of playing ball growing up. Or, how dad would patiently watch me twirl baton, doing his best not to comment on the fact that I was destroying the lawn with my endless pivots in a quest to land that double turn around. I remember helping him plant his garden and sharing that first ripe summer sweet pea. I remember our trips to the Chicken Swap that resulted in unconventional pets and dad buying me a mule named Goldie and trying to pass her off as a pony because I was sad the pony I had wanted got purchased before we could buy him.
There was the advice. Dad lecturing me on how I didn’t need another degree to feel smart or that changing jobs wouldn’t make me happy. That a job is called that for a reason. I remember my wedding day where after our father-daughter dance he simply said, I hope he makes you happy and if he does, I’m happy for you. Or, the time he casually asked if I knew how babies were made when he felt I was taking too long to make him a grandpa again. I was 34 at the time.
I remember dad telling me he missed mom too when he knew I was sad. I remember dad walking me down a makeshift aisle at my wedding and holding my son after he was born. I remember him helping me pack for college, see me off to Oxford and inspect my first home. In every critical moment, dad was always there on the sidelines rooting for my success. He’s been the constant in my life. For 42-years, every major milestone has been marked by dad encouraging me to pursue my dreams.
These memories and thousands more will carry me forward. On Christmas Eve at 3 am in the morning, I get the call. A health record error meant hospice staff waited until he was gone to notify me. Given the blizzard and distance, it is unlikely my sister and I would have made it in time to say one final goodbye.
After 24-years of waiting, he joined my mother. For me, the waiting is now over.
Instead, it is replaced with grief. Grief is a crazy beast I’m all too familiar with. A new void in my life no one or thing can ever fill. There will be no story big enough, no fish large enough, or joke bad enough to replace the man who made me.
For a moment, I focus on a higher power and try to believe that dad’s struggles are finally over and that he’s reunited with mom in time for Christmas. I want to believe Heaven gained another angel this Christmas. Faith is complicated in the face of grief, though. Instead, I only feel a hole in my heart draining whatever energy for life I once had. I don’t wake my husband to tell him the news. It would be too real. I call my sister know, text my aunt and try to keep breathing. Tears flow freely. I lay in bed anticipating what’s next.
A part of me knows what lies ahead. The tsunami of highs and lows that follow losing someone or something you love. The cost of his suffering ending comes with a price that I must now pay. I’m an orphan at 42. I immediately dismiss my anger. After all, as Winnie the Pooh once said, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
For over a decade, my dad battled countless illnesses. He came back more times than I can count. My mom’s story is similar, only I was 18 when I lost her. In both cases, I knew death was inevitable, I just didn’t know when.
Despite mourning the loss of my mother for nearly a quarter century, I struggle with what comes next. How to grieve the right way and meet society’s pressure of grieving enough but not too much. How to mourn but move on. As a generation X’er who thrives on facts, I sought the simplest of answers.
How do I get better?
When do you get to the other side of grief?
Will it ever get easier?
How long should I be sad for and at what point can I resume life?
Is it ok if I’m still sad anyway?
Is it ok to hate God right now?
Or to suddenly find God right now?
Why did I wish them dead?
Is he dead because of me?
Is resenting him for ruining my favorite holidays of the year ok?
Why aren’t I sadder?
Why aren’t I happier?
Should I be questioning my faith right now?
Why do I feel so alone, despite being surrounded by people?
Is this my fault?
Why am I so tired?
Why do I just want things to be normal?
And on and on and on.
After months of researching and years of living with loss, the questions seem obvious. The answers – unavailable. As time ticks on, I settle into a rhythm of grief suddenly knocking me on my ass, only to a few moments later find myself resuming the mundane crisis in front of me – somehow pushing grief aside. Unexpected laughter and joy would find its way into my life only to leave me feeling ashamed; that some how I hadn’t paid my sorrow dues in full.
Our brain is miraculous in that one can be at rock bottom in shock and grief while somehow navigating the complexities of securing a goldfish for an 8-year-old in the very same moment. I know experts say you shouldn’t multi-task, that it in fact is not a thing, but I believe emotional multi-tasking is the only way to survive.
In some respects, the big losses are predictable. You know they are going to hurt. And to love or experience anything meaningful, that’s the price of admission. There’s also a slew of books by people much smarter than I that’ll help give you a roadmap to grieving a spouse, parent, child, best friend. There are endless meditations and faith-based support systems that’ll help you walk through the 5 stages of grief and even tell you about a 6th stage focused on meaning in an attempt to help you cope with catastrophic loss. Or, tell you why the 5 stages of grief were actually created for the dying not the grieving and that in fact catastrophic loss has no rhyme or reason.
Here’s the thing. I’ve come to realize that grief in all forms suck. It knocks you off-balance, challenges your identity and at times cripples you into believe you’re crazy. Other times, it leaves you to live your life, also wondering what kind of human you are for continuing to live, even during the darkest of times. God help you if you compare your loss to the person next to you—their loss is either bigger or smaller depending on the narrative you’ve created in your head. Your grief too minimal or too big in comparison to whatever you are grieving.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all go away. But what does that even mean? If you erase the loss, does that mean you also erase the person you loved? The problem with anything meaningful is it hurts that much more when you lose it.
Life is a series of gains and losses. A new name, new identity, new friends, new career, often come with a cost. There’s that moment of compromise when you settle for what is versus what might be someday. Or, that realization you won’t be the next golden girl baton twirler or make the cut for all state band. How motherhood challenges your sanity. Or, the stories you tell yourself to avoid working on your shortcomings or celebrating your strengths. That moment you regret or let someone else call your shot. These moments of loss quickly add up, even when replaced with something better.
Sure, you can tell yourself that in order to gain something you must let go. Sometimes you do it willingly. Other times, a force greater than you takes it away. Both scenarios are difficult and remind us that life is hard. It hurts. Even in the most beautiful moments, loss lives in us.
That’s what this book is about. A series of stories about loss – ordinary and extraordinary losses – that define us. I’ve spent a lot of time asking why me, researching and asking people how to cope with loss in hopes of sharing some wisdom here. Some simple, tactical tips and stories of how to lose gracefully. Of how to lose, without losing yourself.
I have no authority writing this book. I am not licensed in anything other than driving a car. This is not a replacement for therapy. This is simply my stories and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way that might help make your road a bit less bumpy. This is not an inspirational story where I reckon with loss, find God or resolve my feelings of loss. This is a story about being in the trenches and navigating hardship while giving myself grace to find joy as well.
There’s an old saying that misery loves company. I hope you find some comfort in these stories and understand that you are not alone in your loss. I believe everyone grieves loss differently but there’s value in the collective reality that we all will experience loss throughout our lives. For some odd reason, at least for me, I find peace and comfort in knowing I am not alone.