I have been trying to write again for over a month, and have found myself utterly unable to write a word. Everything I try to say comes out wrong, and in general I feel like someone has sucked my brain out of my head and left me bereft of thought and sense.
A friend told me that grieving makes you feel like you are walking through jello; that everything is exhausting and takes more energy than you have in your body. She also said that she cried at the oddest times, mostly at church and while hiking. I can confirm that I have cried both in church and while working out, so she must be right. Some days I feel emotionally numb and can get through the day without much trouble, and other days I have no motivation to work or move; all I want to do is sit and cry.
My father died of Alzheimer’s on May 7th.
We found out that he had Alzheimer’s about a month before he died. Until then we believed that he had vascular dementia that was caused by his 2009 stroke. And honestly, he did have vascular dementia… it’s just that Alzheimer’s snuck up on us and started turning up the volume on his decline until the advance of Alzheimer’s was unmistakable. Vascular dementia has a much slower trajectory, allowing its victims to suffer for many years before they die. My grandmother died of vascular dementia shortly after she turned 90. She had suffered with vascular dementia for 10-15 years before she died; we have no idea how long she had dementia for sure because she was living in another state and so we didn’t clearly perceive the onset of her dementia. The late stages of her dementia took far too long to take her life and she suffered, unable to move much or speak at all for close to a year before she died.
My father’s death took us by storm, happening in only seven days. It began when he struck another resident, giving the poor man a black eye. The facility increased his medication to reduce my father’s agitation, and he began to sleep almost 24 hours a day. I insisted that he was over-medicated. Looking back, I think I was just in denial that his dementia was advancing with lightening speed. The memory care facility where we placed my dad is renowned for its ability to deal with seniors with behavior problems; the majority of residents are fully functioning despite being medicated to prevent aggression. The sad fact is that my father was simply moving quickly into his final stages.
My father fell four times in four days, splitting open both eyebrows, bruising himself extensively, and finally breaking his upper left arm very badly. He seemed to be unable to stand or get out of bed without collapsing to the floor. The day he broke his arm was the last day that he was able to communicate at all; that night the hospice nurses found him thrashing in his bed and they were unable to calm him no matter what medications for pain or anxiety they administered. They called my mother just short of midnight to let her know that he appeared to have terminal agitation. Terminal agitation is familiar to hospice nurses, as many patients become restless, agitated, unable to be calmed or find a comfortable position as they move into their final days. The hospice nurse did her best to comfort my father, even holding him in her arms to comfort him as he struggled, calling for my mother and crying out in distress. The hospice workers called to let my mother know that my father would likely die in the next four to five days, and she called me immediately afterwards to let me know that my father was dying.
By the time I got to see my father Sunday morning, he was already unresponsive. By Sunday night he was showing signs of wasting (hollow cheeks, change in skin tone.) By Monday morning his temples were hollow. I sat with him, singing hymns and reading Scripture. My mother and I discussed what we might want at his memorial service. My dad ran a fever that couldn’t be suppressed and we listened to the sounds of the ‘death rattle’ as he struggled to breathe. We finally left at 5:30pm to head home for dinner because his death seemed to be dozens of hours away; there were no signs that he was in his final hours.
The hospice nurse that arrived only 30 minutes after we left said that she had never seen anyone progressing through their final hours so quickly. It was as if my father had waited for us to leave so that he could die without us having to watch his death.
He died shortly after 8pm and the memory care facility called us so that we could come to grieve and pray over him before the funeral home arrived to take his body. I couldn’t stop shaking and could barely speak after I got the call, but somehow I made it to the care facility to be with my mother and our close friends. Later on I found out that shaking, uncontrollable crying, and inability to speak are common signs of the shock of grief. God’s grace alone got me safely through that twenty minute drive—that and two of my friends who listened to the depths of my grief. I cannot thank them enough for what they did for me.
There have been many challenges since my father’s death:
My estranged brother decided to attend the memorial, which meant I saw him for the first time in six years. He did not welcome the reunion…but later emailed me. I am still trying to figure out how to respond. My father’s death reduced the number of abusers in my life by one…and adding my brother back would increase the number by one. I don’t know what to do…and yet I miss my brother very much.
Both of my daughters were home at the same time for the first time since Christmas 2016. It was hard to spend time with them and simultaneously take care of my mother, give the eulogy at my father’s funeral, and grieve my father’s death. In all truth it was hard to function at all.
At the same time, there have been moments of extreme grace:
My church family came through for me in ways that I could not have imagined. Teri’s husband Andy cried while playing Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone. Teri died on February 11th, 2018 and her memorial was on March 10th, 2018. I know that playing the same song he played for his wife’s funeral only two months earlier was extremely painful and yet he did this to comfort me. My senior pastor, the church staff, the Praise Band, and the ladies who volunteer to staff funeral receptions did everything they possibly could to make the entire funeral deeply comforting and almost effort free for my family. I have never felt so loved and supported by my church family, and it was truly beautiful!
My son-in-law and his family bent over backwards to make sure that my mom, my daughters, and I had all the support we needed. They inconvenienced themselves to serve us, and I am deeply thankful for their presence in my life.
My parent’s family of friends were amazing, offering a lifeline for my mom as she faced the loss of her lifelong love. They made sure that she was never alone when she needed a shoulder to cry on or a friend to provide a meal. They made sure that I never had to worry about my mom. They showed up to pray with us at my father’s deathbed. They proved their love in actions that lifted our hearts when we were grieving.
This has been a long and difficult journey for my family. I am well aware that many of my readers are also on this journey with one or more of their parents. Know that I continue to pray for all of you as your parents find their way back home to God.
My mother and I truly believe that my father, who was fixated on going home with my mom from the minute he entered a care facility in February, realized that he could never go back home to his own house, and so he chose to head home to his Father’s house. I know that he is truly happy in his Father’s house and he finally knows that we did all we could to make his life joyful in his final months.
Happy Ultimate Birthday, Daddy! You are home forever, and I will be there soon enough. I can’t wait to see you again!