Learning to Grieve
My dad died on February 1 of this year. I don’t say that to garner sympathy but merely as a statement of truth. I say that because my dad no longer walks this earth, and that is my new reality.
He is not the first person I love who has died, but he is certainly the closest. His illness seemed sudden, although it had likely been around for months. In late October, he got a cold. He still had it at Thanksgiving, although his doctor assured him it was just a virus that was lingering. After the holidays when the cold was still there, his doctor grew concerned and sent him to a specialist. On January 10, he was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer and was in a severe amount of pain. No treatment would prolong his life. He entered hospice the last week in January and died after a few days. My mother, sister, nephew, husband, and I were all by his side as he breathed his last breath.
Over the past few decades, I’ve developed into a pretty chill person. Especially in the past five or so years, I’ve been an anxiety-free, happy-go-lucky, roll-with-the-punches kind of gal unless something extreme has happened. Perhaps not surprisingly, that is also the period in my life where I’ve hit my stride as an intuitive energy healer and psychic medium. Living what I believe is my life’s true purpose has smoothed my rough edges and given me a broader perspective about life and death. It’s allowed me to move into my authentic self. I’ve communicated with hundreds of spirits of people who have passed, including some I love. I’ve offered comfort to people who are mourning the loss of loved ones. So I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that when one of my immediate family members died, I would handle it with a similar level of aplomb, understanding, and even-temperedness.
That didn’t happen.
On the day my father was diagnosed, I stopped eating. I couldn’t. I tried. I’d take a bite of food and nothing would go down. I barely slept. I threw myself into work. And in my darkest moments, I was convinced I didn’t remember how to swallow. I’d try to swallow and panic would set in until I was able to relax myself enough to do it. Then, as soon as I did, it would start all over again. I was terrified I was going to choke on my own saliva. I knew intellectually these were all manifestations of anxiety arising from the stress of my dad’s illness and worry about my mom, but even knowing and understanding that didn’t matter.
By about January 15, doctors told us my dad probably had six months left. It was plenty of time, I thought, that we could get together and say everything we had to say. My sisters and I planned a weekend with my parents at the beginning of February where the five of us could spend time together as a family. In the meantime, I threw myself into my work, taught my classes, and accepted any project that came my way to keep my mind busy. During that two weeks, I wrote two books if that tells you anything about how frantically I worked. You have lots of time to do stuff when you stop sleeping and eating.
Early in the week before we were supposed to spend the weekend with my parents, my mom called and said dad was going into hospice to get his pain under control. It sounded like he would be put on some medication and return home, just as he had the previous week when he was hospitalized for the same reason. Still, in my heart I knew my dad would enter hospice, and he wouldn’t return home. I hoped I was wrong, but I didn’t think I was.
The next day, mom called and told us if we wanted to see Dad, we needed to come now. Unfortunately, my younger sister had a flight from Hawaii where she lives in a few days and was unable to change it. My older sister, my husband, and I dropped everything and headed to my hometown where we sat with my mom and dad in hospice.
My father was minimally lucid when I arrived. He had short periods of wakefulness, but he was heavily drugged and would quickly drift off to sleep. It was difficult to understand what he said when he was speaking. In one particularly lucid moment, he opened his eyes, looked at me, said, “Hi Kar,” and then asked me, “Am I dying?” I told him yes because what else was I going to do?
It quickly became apparent that even as heavily medicated as he was, my father was still in significant pain, so meds were raised to try and control it. He slipped away then; he was out of pain and still with us but not really with us.
On Thursday evening while my younger sister was still on an airplane, Dad took a turn. Something changed. His breathing was different – more erratic. We knew it would be soon, and all of us stood by his side and talked to him. We told him it was okay to go, that mom would be okay, and that we would all be okay. We told him we loved him. Well, at first just my mom and my sister did because I was overcome. I couldn’t speak the words in my heart, but then as I got my emotions under control, I was able to tell him the same thing.
After a short period that seemed like forever, something in the room changed. I felt something – someone there. I knew his loved ones had come for him. I turned to Jim, signaled this would be Dad’s last breath, and then watched as he took it. I felt him go.
My dad died. I didn’t want to let him go, but I knew we had to. Life is not the same without him, and my world is forever changed.
We lingered for an hour in hospice as they took care of Dad’s body and friends came to offer love and support. When they took him to the funeral home, Jim and I staggered back to our hotel in a daze. All the way, I heard my dad chattering at me, but I assumed it was just wishful thinking. He was telling me what he was experiencing, and I was happy to listen, but for once I didn’t believe I was actually receiving psychic communication. I just thought I was doing what I needed to do to comfort myself.
Back at the hotel, Jim left to get something out of our car while my dad’s voice still chattered in my head. I said, “I wish it was really you, but I know it’s just my mind.” And then someone physically yanked my hair hard, and my dad’s voice said loudly, “Hey! Listen to me. I’m here.”
And so I listened. What he said was between us. And in the back of my mind, I still didn’t believe I was really hearing it.
The next several weeks were numb. I went to the funeral. I took on more and more work. I taught my classes. When I tried to speak of my dad, I broke down in sobs. And when I was alone, my dad would come to me and talk. I didn’t know if he was really there; I couldn’t trust my abilities because I knew what I wanted to believe would supersede what was actually happening. I felt him visit regularly. And although I didn’t believe he was there, on the off chance he was, I talked to him. Doing so gave me comfort.
I told him that to get through to my mom and sisters, the best way was to communicate in their dreams. I told him I missed him, I loved him, and I wished I could have had more lucid time with him before he died. I had full conversations every time I felt his presence even though I was sure he wasn’t really there, but I just wanted him to be.
A few months later, I was at the Oregon Ghost Conference, where I teach and speak every year. I was surrounded by psychics, and I told my dad on one of his visits, “If you’re really here and you’ve really been coming to me, please communicate with one of my psychic medium friends and have them speak to me privately, giving me some kind of information so I will know I truly have been communicating with you.”
My friends Seth Michael and AuroA were giving a gallery reading that night at the conference. So far, nobody had said anything to me from my dad, so I thought that probably confirmed what I knew, which was my conversations with and visits from him were all in my mind. After all, my dad when he was alive was skeptical about psychics, and my abilities were a subject we just didn’t discuss much, if at all. So I had zero expectations at the gallery reading; I was there to support my friends.
I stood in the back of the room watching people getting messages from loved ones when I heard my dad’s voice say to me, “Watch this,” as Seth and AurorA were transitioning from giving messages to one person to another.
Then Seth started making a horrible coughing noise – one I’d heard before. “This man is making me feel so much pain and like I can’t breathe and he sounds like this,” Seth said, making the strangled noise again. It was the exact noise my dad made as he was in hospice dying.
“He says, ‘I gave up the ghost,’ and laughs,” Seth said. “He says, ‘I willed himself to die.’”
Seth was communicating with my father, who thought my ghost stuff was amusing and often made the joke of “giving up the ghost.”
And so, in front of a ton of people, my dad who I always thought was slightly embarrassed by the whole psychic and ghost thing communicated with me. The content of the message didn’t matter as much as the fact he was there. He was also letting me know by communicating through Seth that all the communication I believed to be my imagination was, indeed, real. It brought me comfort, and it also released something. It was the start of my true grief process.
I always believed that as a psychic medium I would handle the death of loved ones well, as my belief and understanding is people never really leave us and love never really dies, that they are there looking over us and loving us in spirit form. I’ve shared this information with many people, and I’ve felt it viscerally as I do.
But when my dad died, I forgot all of that. Or for a while, I stopped believing it. I became trapped in numbness where I felt safe. There’s not a word deep enough to describe the raw depths of my pain at my dad’s death, and it wasn’t a feeling I was willing to allow myself to experience or process. The part of me who had comforted so many people by telling them their loved ones were still there was deeply ashamed that when death became that closely personal, I somehow lacked the power of my convictions. I was angry at myself for grieving so deeply and unwilling to allow my grief because of my belief that consciousness survives death and my dad wasn’t really lost. I believed I was supposed to grieve a certain way, or that my grief should somehow be less because I could communicate beyond the veil. My pain grew sluggish and sticky. I was mired in it because I refused to allow myself to move through it since I didn’t believe given what I knew about the human soul, I should be grieving at all.
Instead, I processed in bits and pieces. I’ve had times where I’ve broken down, times where I’ve been numb, and times where for just a moment, I have a glimmer of understanding that what I believe about life after death is true. But those moments of knowing were ephemeral, and they slipped away before I could grasp them with desperate hands.
In mid-August, we gathered to scatter my dad’s ashes. We chartered a boat filled with family and friends and traveled to the San Juan Islands. On the way, we saw porpoises, and when we arrived at the spot, there was an unexpected pod of migrating orcas.
All of my life, I’ve dreamed of dolphins, porpoises, orcas, and whales. They come to me in dreams during difficult periods, and I always wake from the dreams knowing everything will be all right, and all is as it should be. So it was no mistake they were there that day when we scattered my dad’s ashes. They were there for him and from him, and they were there for all of us.
As my older sister and nephew poured his ashes into the water where the orcas swam, the ashes made a beautiful pattern in the sea. And I did something I was unable to do at his funeral. I allowed myself to feel the depths of my grief and I cried. I told my dad good-bye, and I let him go. And underneath, I felt something else, as well. I felt gratitude I’d had my dad for 52 years and for the father he’d been, and I knew I never truly would have to let him go because he was a part of me.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is there a time frame or normal behavior. Regardless of what you believe or what you know, when someone you love dies, it is intensely personal. It doesn’t matter if you can communicate with spirits, if you believe in life after death, or if you believe your loved ones remain with you even though they are no longer physically embodied. For quite a while, I was unwilling to allow the grief to touch me because I didn’t believe I had a right to it given what I knew to be true about the nature of the universe. But as I tried to go about life as usual, my dad kept creeping in, and so did deep sadness at his passing. Eventually, I came to a place where I could either choose to suppress it and live my life in a state of numbness, or I could lean in and allow myself to experience it fully so I could move on. I wish I would say it was a conscious decision I chose the latter, but it wasn’t. The dam burst and I was unable to continue with the numbness because it dishonored all that my father was to me. It also dishonored the authenticity of my own feelings.
And so I grieve. I miss my dad. I know he is safe. I know he is well, and I know he is with us, but he is not physically here. But even in his death, my dad is still teaching me things. When he was alive, he taught me to always have an open mind. By giving me Raymond Moody’s Life After Life when I was a teenager, he set me on the path to my life’s true purpose. By his own curious exploration of the universe, he set the example that made me feel comfortable pursuing my own curiosity, and even though we ultimately arrived at different conclusions about the way things worked. Without his example, I would never have come to be where I am now.
In his death, my dad remains my teacher. He shows me it’s never too late to learn; you can even learn things after you die. He shows me I can’t avoid grief and sadness, and my feelings are never wrong and should never be denied. And he shows me that what I believe is, in some form true – or at least true for me. When our loved ones die, their bodies are no longer there. But their souls – those live on. They move on to new adventures and possibly even new bodies, but their love for us leaves an indelible imprint on our lives, hearts, and souls that can and will never be erased.
Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay
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