I recently lost my father to stage four pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in June of 2014, and was given approximately 6 months to live (should he not choose to have treatment). After a few long weeks, he decided to go ahead with chemotherapy for us, his family. He was extremely sick while on chemo, and struggled through the treatments. By the December of 2014, the chemo stopped having an effect on his multiple tumours, and it was then decided that there was no value in continuing the chemotherapy.
He was pretty strong throughout, and the first time you could start to notice that he was ‘sick’ was in July this year, when he became jaundiced and suddenly started drastically losing weight. From July, things happened pretty quickly, he started saying his goodbyes, he started getting confused (due to the toxins building up in his body), and before we knew it, on the 22nd of August, he was gone. In the process of having my dad pass away, I was exposed to a number of lessons. I’m also finding that I’m discovering new lessons on a daily basis. Here is what I have learnt so far.
Lesson 1: Cancer Sucks
This statement isn’t going to be a surprise for anyone, especially not for people who have gone through cancer, or who have witnessed a family member suffering with cancer. Cancer destroys its’ sufferers, and it destroys the families who have to witness that suffering. It takes no prisoners. It is a nasty disease, and it is not fair for someone to have to die like that. In February of this year, Medical News Today showed a study published in the British Journal of Cancer which announced that as many as 1 in 2 people will have some form of cancer in their life time. I know a lot of this is based on lifestyle choices – such as drinking, and smoking, and so to some extent, cancer can be avoidable. That is why I am now leading the healthiest lifestyle I can lead. Even if you are that one in two lucky people who doesn’t personally get cancer, someone close to you will. That is a frightening, sucky, thought.
Lesson 2: The Mind is More Powerful Than You Think
Your mind tries to protect you as you deal with grief and loss. I held my dad and watched him take his last breath. Yet, my mind keeps telling me it didn’t happen. My brain doesn’t want it to be real. I still don’t quite believe it – a month later. It feels like I must have been imagining it, and that it can’t be true, or that it is all a bad dream. I relive the moment it happened, and can vividly picture everything that happened, everything I did, how he looked, but yet a small part of me feels like I was watching a movie, or just playing it out in my imagination. I think that’s your minds way of easing the pain, and helping you through the burdens that you are going through. Or it’s just complete, and utter, unavoidable, denial. Either way, I’m encompassed by a feeling of numbness, and not wanting to believe that my daddy, my hero, is gone.
Lesson 3: We Are All Mortal
As a nurse, especially when I was a student, I witnessed many people dying – enough to lose count. However, with a change of field and now working in a Well Baby clinic, I don’t see death as often (I don’t really see it at all now). It’s easier to pretend that death isn’t real, and that it won’t happen, but my dad’s passing is a harsh reminder of my own mortality. I will die. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty years’ time. Being reminded of your mortality is a scary thought, and yet it pushes you to live your life to the full, to do what makes you happy, and to enjoy every single moment. The thought of death still scares me, no matter how natural the process is. However, this experience has reminded me that everything, and everyone who lives, will die. Perhaps, in a strange way, there is some reassurance to be found in that finality.
Lesson 4: Your Entire World Changes When You Say Goodbye
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it changes in ways you wouldn’t expect. It’s not just that he physically won’t be present anymore. I was really the definition of ‘daddy’s little girl’ and I no longer have him on my team, like he always was. He was always so proud of me, and rooting for me, and I don’t feel that anymore. No birthday, Christmas or Father’s Day will ever be the same again. One day when I get married, I won’t have my dad to walk me down the aisle, nor will I get to have my father-daughter dance with him. One day, when I have children, they will never know who their grandad was (and he would have been an awesome grandad). The repercussions of someone so important passing away so early are endless.
Lesson 5: No Amount of Time is Enough Time
When we were told he had 6 months to live, it was a huge shock and I remember thinking it was such a short period of time. However, we were lucky enough to get a full fourteen months with him. He was always so strong, and did so well. At the end, things went very fast, and despite having prepared ourselves for over a year, it still felt sudden. At least we managed to say our goodbyes in time. I think that’s the one positive of cancer, as opposed to a traumatic and sudden death – you know that death is inevitable, so you can say your goodbyes. My last memory of my dad – before the confusion, and before he started losing consciousness – was sitting on the couch with him, and hugging him. He said everything he needed to say, and I said what I needed to say. We cried together, our tears intermingled and became one. I’ll never forget that special moment with him, and all the things we spoke about. But, I want more time. I need more time with him. Accepting that I didn’t get enough time with him will be the hardest thing I will have to deal with in my life. A lifetime is not enough time when it comes to someone you love that much.
Lesson 6: They Never Leave Your Side
I am not a religious person, nor do I believe in an afterlife. However, that said, I often feel my dad’s presence. Not all the time, but often enough for me to notice it, and I feel it strongly. The other night, I woke up and I saw him sitting next to me on my bed. I told him I missed him, he said it back and then he gave me a massive bear hug. It seemed so real, I even felt the pressure from his hug – but before I knew it, I was asleep again. I don’t know if I dreamed it – I guess the logical mind says so. Maybe this is another way that your mind protects you, and gives you closure. Perhaps your brain creates the sight and feeling of that person to help you feel comforted. Or perhaps, in some unbelievable and frankly impossible way, he is with me.
Lesson 7: There’s A Lot To Learn About What to Do When Someone Dies
Nothing can prepare you for when a loved one dies – not only with regards to the emotional struggle and grief that you go through, but also with the administration that goes with it. For example, did you know that paramedics need to certify a death before the funeral parlour collects the body (this is a new law, apparently)? Or, that if you die at home, they will have to do an autopsy? Or, that as a widower, you can claim UIF after your spouse dies? You have to learn as you go, adding to the stress, when all you want to do is sit and do absolutely nothing. You generally get three days of compassionate leave, and three days of family responsibility leave off work when there is a death – but this honestly isn’t enough time to get your admin done, let alone to have time to sit and just accept what has just happened. Before you know it, you’re thrown back into work, and life. The hardest thing in all of this is that life just goes on. Everyone keeps living their life, and all you want to do is shout and say “But my dad died! How can you continue on as if nothing happened?!”
Lesson 8: Life Isn’t Fair, and It Never Will Be Fair
My dad was a great guy, and he deserved to live a full and long life. It isn’t fair that he didn’t get that. He was fun, and funny. I am very similar to him, in a lot of ways. I look like him, I have his sense of humour, his bone structure (thanks for that), and his stubbornness. He always made people feel comfortable, he was approachable, and he accepted everyone without judgement. He looked scary, and powerful (because, you know, Germans), but appearances were very deceiving. He liked teasing the significant others that my brother and I brought home when we were dating. He used to ask me, “When am I seeing Richard again?”, knowing full well that my boyfriend’s name is Ross. He lived his life to the full. He partied (while being the life of the party), and boy did he love good food. He always wanted to provide the best for his family, and he worked his butt off running a restaurant, and consequently hotels, to do just that. He was always cracking a joke of some kind. He loved Phil Collins, and Fawlty Towers. He lived in South Africa for over thirty years, but still had his German accent, and still couldn’t say “encyclopedia”. He was a great chef, and he and I used to sneakily eat the crackling if he was making roast pork. He taught me to love liquorice more than I love actual food. We played backgammon a lot, and he was unbeatable. He loved nothing more than his train simulator game. He was an Excel whizz and obsessed over discovering new formulas and colour coding his documents. Sure, we had our arguments (two stubborn people don’t always see eye-to-eye), but I adored him. He defended me when I had problems – whether at school, or at work. I knew I could make a mistake, and he would never hold it against me. He was my everything. I always went to him for advice because he was so logical, especially when it came to things like finances, job offers, or the best country to raise kids in. I feel a part of me is missing now that he is gone, and that is a piece of my heart that will never be filled again.
Through all of this, I learnt that I wasn’t ready for these lessons. But perhaps that is a lesson in itself.
21.10.1953 – 22.08.2015