The Death of My Father and the Five Stages of Grief

 

February 12th, 1PM, 2021

I finally get to see my dying father. He and my mother have been living in an assisted living facility for several years, and when the Covid-19 lock-downs began, all visitations were suspended in March of 2020. They persist today. I haven’t been able to give either of them a hug for a very long time. As my father has had several recent strokes, and his health and cognition have declined, it has been very difficult, emotionally painful, not being able to see him. He went from the hospital back to the assisted living facility. I could not visit him. But today, as he is now officially in palliative care, the facility has made special arrangements and provisions for me and my family to see him. It was hard to knock on their apartment’s door, as I knew what was coming. But, as she greeted me, I hugged my mother today for the first time in almost a year. And then I saw my father.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book called: On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross had made created a devoted career to caring for and treating the helpless. She began her career as a psychiatric resident at the Manhattan State Hospital, working with patients that modern healthcare of the time had all but cast aside; the schizophrenic and what were called ‘hopeless patients,’ a delightful little reference for those with a terminal illness. Kübler-Ross was shocked by the treatment of mentally ill patients and those that were given no hope of recovery. The compassion this instilled in her would define her professional career.

There was my father. The palliative care division of the hospital had set up a hospital bed, with the oxygen tanks and the monitors stashed in the corner. Neither were hooked up. I looked at the man lying on the bed. This powerful man, this strong yet caring, sensitive, and compassionate man, lay dying before me, withering away, one foot already in the world to come. His skin was blotchy and pale. His breathing was shallow and irregular; I knew this to be Cheyne-Stokes respiration. His hair was unkempt, his beard was a tangled mess of whiskers. At death’s door, here was my disheveled father, his body rapidly giving out.

In 1965, Kübler-Ross became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.

She continued her work with terminally ill patients. Motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on the subject of death and dying, her research progressed into a series of seminars with her research and interviews with terminally ill patients. In 1969, she published her famous work, On Death and Dying.

I sit on the edge of the bed, and gently grasp my father’s hand. His glassy eyes come to life for a moment, and focus on me. I ask him how he is feeling. There are words, mumbles that take great effort to come from him, but they do not make sense. I tell him that he has been a wonderful father. I tell him that all he has taught me about life; compassion, reverence for all living creatures, a calm sense of humor, and a passion to learn more. I tell him that this is the best inheritance I could have, and that I am very lucky to have been his son. His face remains expressionless, and yet a I see tear forming in his right eye. His recent strokes had caused him to have problems with his vision. Or maybe this shedding of a single tear was a goodbye.

Sadly, the history of healthcare is replete with horrific, barbarous treatment of the mentally ill. Every so often, someone like Kübler-Ross will shift the paradigm, and the mindset of not only the medical community, but society at large, will begin to change. Kübler-Ross’s work with not only the deeply mentally ill, but those who faced a terminal illness, was rather groundbreaking for the time. She was greatly motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on death and dying. Feelings, emotions. You can’t measure them. You can’t see them. Yet they are there, and how a person faces death is one of the most powerful challenges a person can experience.

I lean down and give my father a hug, though his arms cannot embrace me. I tell him that he has been a fantastic father. Though he already had one foot in the world to come, he strained to speak something he has always said whenever I express my love or gratitude for him. Though he labors to speak, I hear him, barely: “Oh, I’ll do in a pinch.” Perhaps part of his brain was still working and that response was purely reflex. Or perhaps some part of his soul understood me, appreciated what I had said, and was doing its best to say goodbye.

In her book, Kübler-Ross describes five terms, or steps, that a terminally ill patient may go through when faced with a deadly diagnosis. Over time, her process has grown to include not only those that are dying, but anyone who is facing loss or grief of any kind. The acronym is commonly know as ‘DABDA,’ and were originally outlined as follows:

1) Denial

2) Anger

3) Bargaining

4) Depression

5) Acceptance

Of course, no model of human behavior is perfect and scientifically predictable. The human brain remains a great mystery, and human psychology even more so. Some may experience part of these phases, some may go back and forth, and some may experience only one or two. Examples of such, perhaps imagining that a patient has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, may go something like this:

1) Denial: “That’s impossible. That diagnosis must be wrong. There’s no way in hell I could get cancer.”

2) Anger: “Why me? How could this happen? Who do I blame?!?”

3)Bargaining: “I know if I just change this part of my lifestyle, I could actually beat this thing!”

4) Depression: “I’m going to die soon, What’s the point?” The individual has recognized their mortality.

5) Acceptance: “I can’t fight it. I will accept it. I will prepare for it as best as I can.” A calm, stable emotional acceptance may come over the afflicted.

As I mentioned, this model can apply to anyone facing a grief or a tragic situation; the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a pet; any situation that involves loss that one has no power or control over. A fantastic example is from a book by writer David Kessler, who worked extensively with Kübler-Ross leading up to her death. Regarding this damned virus that has ravaged our world and has kept me some seeing my father wither away, Kessler writes:

“There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”

My eyes meet my father’s for one last time. Though he may not be able to see it through my surgical mask, I am smiling a goodbye. His eyes, though glassy and crusted with rheum, blink at me. Perhaps the best goodbye he say. I turn and leave his bedroom, looking back at my father one more time, and enter the living room. I embrace my mother and cry.

Everyone grieves differently; as I indicated earlier. One might feel one or all of Kübler-Ross’s stages. Or perhaps none at all. Kübler-Ross’s work was important and seminal. Since her work, psychologists, the healthcare industry, and society at large (to a degree) have been more open to talking about, researching, and sharing their experiences on death; for it is not the end of life, but a part of it.

I sit in a chair in the living room, exhausted. My mother brings me a cup of coffee, and takes a seat herself. I have compiled what I call a ‘Dad-List,’ a listing of tasks that need to be taken care of when someone dies. There’s a long list of people, friends and distant relatives, that need to know. Social Security needs to know. Dad’s teacher’s union pension needs to know. The credit union needs to know. And through it all, you have to find some way to grieve.

Not to pile on the psychology 101, but there are many defense mechanisms a person will use when confronted with difficult circumstances or behaviors. My ‘Dad-List,’ though an important part of this process, is an example of intellectualization. With this mechanism, a person uses reasoning to avoid confronting emotional conflicts and stressful situations. A person might focus on details and logistics, important though they may be, instead of allowing themselves to feel the grief and despair.

I set my Dad-List off to the side. My mother and I share a long conversation. Both of us take turns bringing up the many wonderful memories we’ve had with my father. Though he still alive in the adjacent room, both of us speak as if he is gone. We know the time is short. But there are so many wonderful memories. It’s almost like we’re trying to keep him alive, by pushing the positive, and not talking of the decaying husk lying in the next room, struggling to breath its last.

I have a great phone conversation with my psychiatrist, Dr. Dispensapill, when I get home. We talk about grieving, and what I might expect when my father finally goes. He has been a great help to me; he has helped me overcome both a crippling anxiety and depression disorder, and, unlike too many psychiatrists who just hand you some pills and tell you to keep a journal or something, Dr. Dispensapill is also a skilled psychotherapist. And yet he tells me there is one thing he cannot fix: a broken heart. But we talk at great length about grieving.

For those of you who have lost a parent due to old age and infirmity, it can be a powerful event to witness. You grow up thinking your parents are immortal, and yet one day, there they lay in front of you, knocking on the door of the world to come. I had always seen my father as a physically, intellectually, and emotionally powerful man. And to see him as I did that day… There is a lesson to be learned there, but to be honest, the wounds are still fresh, and I have not yet had time to truly understand them.

February 13th, 2021 – 6:00 AM

My phone rings. The caller ID says that it’s my mother. My heart freezes. There is only one reason she would be calling me this early. I answer. She says; “It’s over for us. He’s gone.”

It’s been a tough few days, but I’m managing. The outpouring of support from friends and family has been a huge help. But I feel numb. Dr. Dispensapill said that this is normal, to feel numb for a while. Then, as my mind begins to process the loss, emotions will come out here and there, in many forms. If I feel anything these days, it’s a little bit of stunned, a little bit of sadness, and a whole lot of fatigue. It’s been an exhausting experience.

But, in a way, I also feel a sense of relief. I am relieved that my father is finally at peace, and I am relieved that my family no longer has to watch him decay further into such a poor physical state.

Please allow me to return to Kübler-Ross’s stage’s of grieving. Like I said, I am still numb, and emotions are slowly coming out, but much of what I feel applies to her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

1) Denial: I really don’t feel this. I know that he is gone. What helps me in this regard is knowing that his health had been deteriorating, his body withering away, for some time. There was no sense in denying it.

2) Anger: I feel none. I am very fortunate in this regard. Many times, when someone loses a parent, there be anger or bouts of acting out, particularly if the child feels that there were unresolved issues, or if the child harbored resentment over the deceased parent’s actions of some sort. My father and I had a fantastic relationship.

3) Bargaining: I must admit, I feel a bit of this. What if they had given him a little longer before they began the morphine death process? What if he had come out this decayed state? What if some physician had tried something new or novel? But I cannot hold these thoughts as rational. It was quite clear that my father was ready to go.

4) Depression: Yup. You bet. It’s not a clinical depression, like I’ve struggled with in the past, however. It is more of an emptiness. I still feel numb, yet the depression will manifest in different ways. I’ve been extremely exhausted ever since he died. It takes great effort to get things done, even trivial things like washing the dishes. I wanted to get this post written the day he died. It’s obviously taken longer.

5) Acceptance: Definitely. My father has been ready to go for quite some time. I could see it coming. I have expected it for a while now. It’s not acceptance in an “I’m okay, things will be alright, let’s move on and have fun” kind of acceptance. It is reality, and it’s what I got.

So I mainly go back and forth between depression and acceptance. But the truth is, everyone grieves differently. There is no perfect handbook that deals with the feelings of dying and death in an arithmetic style. Many things are never quite that simple.

I have a long process of grieving ahead of me. But I know that my father would want me to continue on, to keep learning, to keep trying to help others.

I must finish with one final, interesting thought. My background is in healthcare. I believe in science. I am an empiricist. I can’t quite pull the trigger on atheism, so I consider myself an agnostic. However, that does not mean I don’t have an open mind. There are many things about the world we live in that we don’t quite understand. Call it the supernatural, call it the paranormal, whatever you like. Maybe science will someday be able to measure these things, these phenomena. Or maybe they will forever remain our of our feeble human understanding of the universe. The morning my father died, I texted my oldest brother with the news. As he was replying, the power in his house went out. Later that day, my other older brother and I, who I share an apartment with, were discussing the logistics of who we needed to contact. As I moved through our living room, I knocked an old cane of the its mounting on the wall, close to our kitchen. This wooden can was hand-crafted by my great-grandfather in 1898. I watched in horror as it clashed to the ground. Yet it did not break. My brother and I agreed we should find a better place to display it. And of course, the day my father died, Seattle was covered in a beautiful blanket of pure white snow. There were no cars, and the neighborhood dogs were frolicking in the snowbound street. My father loved dogs. It seems then, that day, he was having fun discovering his newfound gifts, granted to him in the world to come.

I’ll miss you, Dad. I will love you always.

To my father: Richard King Schall

3/05/1928 – 2/13/2021

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