Name: Mark K.
Tell me about the person who died:
My father was a family practice doctor who retired early, at the age of 60. He continued to consider himself a doctor, though, until his recent death in January at the age of 93. He had many health issues and after his retirement he spent much of his time diagnosing his own infirmities and felt that he and the doctors were working as a team—and I think he considered himself to be the lead doctor.
My dad was born on a farm in Iowa and lived in small towns his whole life. His father owned a John Deere tractor dealership and my dad learned early on to fix things, build things and grow things. He defined himself as a doctor, a father, a husband—someone who made decisions, worked hard and got things done. When he could no longer work, and later as his other hobbies and his role as a provider became more difficult, he became depressed, feeling that he was no longer useful, as if he was losing his identity. At the same time, he became more philosophical and spiritual and, at times, less authoritative and judgmental. We could have “meaning of life” conversations and he enjoyed some of the quirky stories that I would write. He even tried his hand at poetry—this from a man who didn’t really see the point of reading fiction or watching movies, perhaps because it meant paying attention to a “made up” story.
In his last years he could barely walk, even with the help of a walker. He loved it when I would take him on drives, though. He had a special fondness for Fairfax, California, a small town near our home. It amused me that he liked it so much, being that he was such a straight-laced Midwesterner at heart—Fairfax is sometimes known locally as “Mayberry on acid.” He would see little cottages on small lots on narrow lanes and observe mountain bikers and joggers coming and going and exclaim, “I like this place—these people know how to live, how to get outside and enjoy nature and live in homes that are just the right size.” In fact, he told me once that as he started to get a bit of dementia and have trouble remembering things and distinguishing between reality and imagination, “Fairfax” became a special word for him. If he could still remember “Fairfax,” he knew that he was still thinking clearly.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
There’s a lumber yard in Fairfax that has an area in the back with used tools, lumber, doors, windows, fixtures and the like. It’s called “The Away Station,” maybe because that’s the place you take things that you would normally throw away. When I first took my dad there, he said that he thought he had died and gone to heaven. He wasn’t able to make it upstairs to the rooms with used tools, but he would have enjoyed that. He had quite a collection of tools and cried the day that he gave them up and moved them to my brother’s house. The one item that might represent his passion for building, fixing and being useful would be a crescent wrench. It couldn’t be just any old adjustable wrench, though. My dad always told me that the Crescent brand was really the only kind of adjustable wrench that was worth owning.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
My dad was in pretty good shape up until about a week before he died, when he must have had a small stroke which made it harder for him to communicate. His eyesight was almost gone and he started to hallucinate. He expressed his fear about dying and described being transported up a hill on a train, moving toward a door. This really bothered him and I worked and talked with him a lot, trying to make the end easier or at least less fearful. I even tried to give him metaphorical tools to make the train stop if he wasn’t ready. I spoke of things he was familiar with from his lifetime of fixing and building—brakes, welding, chains, locks, a roadblock. We slowed the train a bit and it even went back downhill for a while. Eventually, after two days of this restlessness, he became unconscious and then finally the end came.
My mother and sister and I were with him at the end. It was at the same time the most difficult thing I have ever done and the most natural. I’m glad that I was there with him, and I hope we helped make the transition though that gate he feared a little easier.
My grief started with a profound tiredness, and images of his last days that were hard to get out of my mind. The tears still come from time to time and I catch myself saying, “Oh, I need to ask my dad about this,” or “Dad will get a big kick out of this,” and then I remember that I can’t share things with him anymore.
Has anything surprised you about your experience with grief?
Maybe I’m surprised at how I was able to be present and calm at the time of passing. I’m a little surprised that I suggested that we break out some brandy moments after my father’s body was taken away, and also that my mom and sister agreed that it was a good idea.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
It’s been very comforting to me when people say kind things to me about the passing of my father. I wrote a little something and posted it on Facebook and it was nice to hear from people in my life today as well as students from long ago, relatives from Europe, and friends with whom I had lost touch. Some people apologize for taking so long to say something, but I actually like that—it’s like the support is spread out over a period of time.
Some reactions are a little odd, though. Sometimes I’ll tell someone that my dad passed away and they don’t really say anything—they talk about other things, almost like they haven’t heard me. Maybe they feel that they are saying it without saying it, but are too uncomfortable to come right out and address the issue. A couple of people who were once close to me haven’t responded at all—and that makes me sad.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
My mother is experiencing a fair amount of regret along with her grief. I have felt some of that, but mostly I feel pretty good about how my relationship with my dad was at the end. I don’t think there were any unsaid “I love you’s” or apologies. He wanted to end his days at home under hospice care, around his family, and that’s exactly what we did.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I wouldn’t say that it’s too different. I thought that I might be breaking down in front of people, but that tends to happen only when I’m alone. I’ve learned, too, that there are some tender personal things that I can’t share with everyone, so I only talk about those things with people who I trust and I think will understand. I’m coming to realize, though, that there are more of those people in my life than I thought.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
My dad was Lutheran and the rest of the family is Catholic. He seemed to become more religious as time went on, and said that he was spiritually comfortable with his death and confident he would go to a better place. As much as I want to believe in the same way, I am not as certain of all of these things. It was ironic, then, that I found myself reassuring him of his faith during his final days.
I do find the rituals and prayers of my Catholic religion comforting during the grieving process. I have long put off deciding what, exactly, my faith and religious practice is all about, but my father’s passing will probably lead me to examine this more carefully.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
We decided to have a small prayer service just for immediate family right after my father passed. To my surprise, my brothers, who both live quite far away, decided to come as well. We set up a table with photos and mementos from my dad’s past—there were tools, his old doctor’s bag, a microscope, a John Deere hat, a picture of a street car that he had rebuilt, and a carpenter’s apron. Someone said that looking at that table gave you a good picture of what my dad was all about. It turned out that that ritual was very beneficial to all of us—we put it together very quickly, but it helped us to process what had happened and support each other.
I had planned a trip to Yosemite with a couple of childhood friends and we went ahead with the trip just a few days after the memorial. That was the perfect thing for me at the time—good friends who knew my dad, lots of laughs and stories. We played music and spent time in nature. It definitely helped with the healing.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
There is something profound about being with my dad when he died—talking with him and comforting him and talking about his faith, even when he wavered and was fearful at the end. It made me feel like I could be present with something that uncomfortable and unsettling without being afraid. It confirmed something that I hoped was true about me, but I wasn’t sure about. It made me want to be present to comfort others when they are fearful or hurting, and it made me hopeful that I can face my own difficulties and the end of my life in a peaceful way.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke