Finding Happiness in Loss

“Dad, did you ever get any burns or anything from the radiation?”

“What? No. Is that something that happens to people?”

I laughed a little. “Yes, Dad, that’s something that can happen to people.”

“Hm. Well, nope. The chemo didn’t make me sick, my hair didn’t fall out, nothin’. I actually feel pretty good.”

“Guess you’re just a tough old bird.”

“Guess so!”

That was the last conversation I had with my stepdad. The next day he went to a hospital in Iowa City for a biopsy and “some tests and stuff.” He was supposed to call me afterwards and tell me about the results. Instead, I got a text message to call my mom. A biopsy had turned into a lung removal. I called the hospital and was told my dad couldn’t talk because he was on a breathing tube.

“Are you telling me he’s on a respirator? Like life support?”

“Yes, he’s getting help with his breathing.”

“Is he… is that… is he going to be able to get off of that?”

“Well, that’s what we’re hoping,” the nurse said.

I had a press trip scheduled for the next week and my mom told me she would go to the hospital to see him. She said he was conscious and responding, and he rolled his eyes when she told him that I was afraid he’d think I’d forgotten about him. I went to Mexico.

While I was laying in a hammock overlooking the water, I got a text message from Jared telling me that Dad had another surgery and came out of it fine. I was relieved to hear good news. It wasn’t until I got home the next day that I found out he had merely survived another surgery, but that there was no such thing as good news anymore. About 24 hours after arriving home from Cancun, I boarded a Greyhound for the first time. At noon the next day, I finally arrived at my dad’s hospital room and it was clear that I had come to say goodbye.

I know he recognized me at least once, and he knew who I was that first day when I told him that I loved him. That certainty and recognition faded quickly, however, and I spent the bulk of my time trying to guess if he wanted Vaseline on his lips or water squirted into his mouth. At one point, that wasn’t enough.

“Please,” I begged him, “please squeeze my hand or blink your eyes or something to let me know that you love me. Please. I’m sorry, but I need you to tell me you love me one more time.”

I put my head down on his bed and cried. The little old lady whose husband was recovering from hip surgery on the other side of the room peeked around the dividing curtain. She looked as helpless as I felt. “I’m praying for you,” she said. I apologized for disturbing her, and then apologized to my dad for falling apart. He continued to look past me at some spot on the ceiling.

My step brother – Dad’s only biological child – his sister and I met with doctors periodical. First we made him a DNR, then we agreed they could let him go if he began to deteriorate quickly when no one was around. I slept and ate in the hospital to reduce the chances of that happening, and to make sure he would know he wasn’t alone should he have any moments of lucidity. Finally, we had the meeting to discuss letting him go.

I woke up in the SICU tent city Thursday morning and went into his room to tell him good morning. I smiled, and then realized that this was the day we’d decided he would die. It felt like a betrayal not to tell him, but I just kissed his forehead and told him I’d be back as soon as I’d changed clothes and eaten breakfast.

On my way to the showers, I sent out a Tweet:

“Went in to tell my dad good morning. Didn’t have the heart to tell him this would probably be his last. How do you say that? How do you not?”

Becky, thank God, responded with this:

“He probably knows. And I think it is perfectly ok to acknowledge the day. I am so thankful you are able to be there. XO”

It occurred to me that the day we die is no less significant than the day we are born, and so I would, in fact, acknowledge the day in his honor. I bought shampoo and conditioner from the gift shop and washed my hair. I picked out clean clothes that matched, and I put on makeup. The last face he saw, I was determined, would not be that of a haggard daughter who’d been sleeping on pull-out chairs in a waiting room. I went to the coffee shop and ordered a soy chai latte, a favorite of mine and a treat I save for special occasions.

I went to his room and I waited for my brother and my dad’s sister to come.

We spent that last day together, just me and my dad, watching TV and holding hands. I turned the speaker up by his ear during a Sex and the City episode and teased him that this was payback for grounding me for an entire summer. I showed his picture to the nurses, explaining that he was a very vain man and he would want them to know that he was cute as hell when he was healthy. I played George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone for him, just like we’d all promised him we would years ago when death was some faraway thing.

I also played Vince Gill’s Go Rest High on the Mountain, one of the few spiritual songs he’d ever visibly connected with. My sister-in-law had suggested I play a song called Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus), so I found it on iTunes and Dad and I listened to it together. For the first time that day, I broke down and cried as Chris Rice talked about going to heaven. I was trying to make my dad’s passage easier for him, but I didn’t want him to go to heaven. I didn’t want him to go at all.

By the time my brother arrived I was centered and calm and ready to handle the next step. I must have seemed too prepared, because at one point I was asking about timing and offered to go get snacks for the wait, and my brother snapped and demanded that no one “rush this thing along.” I assured him I was in no hurry, I was just trying to get everything ready, as if that’s something we can do before we let someone die.

Eventually, of course, we were ready. I sat on my dad’s right side and held his hand, my brother on the left. Dad’s sister and brother also stood by the bed, silently crying with us. A blonde nurse stepped in between Joey and his aunt and asked if we were ready. Joey nodded, and I lost it again.

“No! Stop!” I cried. “I’m not ready. I am not ready to let him go. I’m not ready for him to just be dead. I want him to wake up and get better.”

I hoped someone would tell me to shut up and instruct the nurse to proceed, but no one did. Joey told me everything was going to be OK, then quietly waited for me to collect myself, leaving me to tell the nurse one final time that, yes, we were ready for her to inject morphine into his IV and turn down his ventilator.

It happened quickly. As Joey and I told him we loved him and thanked him for all he’d done, he took one last deep breath, and died.

The next day, Joey called and asked me to bring over pictures from my mom’s house – whatever I could find – for a photobook his wife was putting together. When I got to their house, he was just getting home from Dad’s house, where he’d found a scrapbook my dad had been keeping for the last several years.

My mom had originally made it as a birthday present when she was going through a scrapbooking phase. It had pictures of his parents and each of us kids, and one page was dedicated to my wedding. I was amazed that he’d held onto this for so many years; the man couldn’t keep a phone number for more than a day. I noticed he’d made his own additions.

The first page of the book had pictures of me in the hospital with Devin taped over some construction-paper letters. A recent picture of Joey was also stuck to the cover page. As I flipped through, I saw evidence of several photos that had been removed, added or moved to a different location. About ten photos I’d brought him from our trip to Costa Rica were neatly affixed to the last few pages.

He’d not only kept the book, he’d obviously looked at it, and he’d taken the time to update it with photos of me, Jared and my kids. I couldn’t believe it; this overt sentimentality was so out of character.

He had told me one last time that he loved me.

The week your dad dies is not what you’d normally consider happy, and yet I don’t have to look hard to find moments worth highlighting.

I got to hold this man’s hand while he died. My brother, who always willingly shared his father with me,instinctively made room for me in a sacred circle.

With Vaseline for his lips and a wet sponge for his dry mouth, I got to repay my dad for the countless dinners cooked, loads of laundry washed, and weekends ruined by teenage angst.

My dad once told my would-be husband to always remember that I was special, and I remembered this week what a gift it was to know without a doubt that you amazed someone. My dad adored me, and he knew that I loved him, too. That certainty brought me happiness and, more importantly, peace.

I hope my dad has found peace as well.

I take the time to highlight what made me happy each week because gratitude is the root of all happiness. I encourage you to develop your own gratitude practice; I wholeheartedly believe it will change your life.

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  1. Becca says:

    I am profoundly sorry for your loss. I am glad you all were able to be there with him. There is nothing one can do to prepare a person to be an orphan or a widow, it just sweeps you along with it. I am glad he told you he loved you one more time. Blessings for a time of rest and recuperation for all of you.

  2. so not ready to fight my way through the tears to describe my thoughts, but know that you are loved. and i am so very thankful you got to be there to hold your dad’s hand.
    hello haha narf’s most recent post: Adventure in Tahn

  3. daniel says:

    I had a religious/spiritual experience yesterday that was not only the highlight of my week, but it came out of the most unlikely place. It was born out of an obligation and I didn’t want to go. I didn’t even realize what it was, actually, until it was underway, and it is now one of the top spiritual moments I have had my whole life. My point is – happiness can come out of the most unlikely places, sometimes not only when you aren’t looking for it, but in places you would think it simply wouldn’t be.

    I’m sorry about your dad, but I am glad for you that you were able to be there – both for him and for yourself.
    daniel’s most recent post: Summer 2012 Vacation Ending

  4. Maria says:

    Thinking of you and your family, Britt.
    Maria’s most recent post: please remember (these things)

  5. I am finding it very difficult to post through my tears, but I wanted to tell you that this post moved me to my core. It was so real and so honest and so exactly what it feels like in that moment. And the gift he gave you in the scrapbook, well that just threw me straight over the edge. Thank you for this. I needed it today.
    thedoseofreality’s most recent post: It Is Now the Time…

  6. Megan says:

    What a gift you both got. I’m glad you got to be there. xoxo
    Megan’s most recent post: Fifty-Two, Week 12: The Learning Curve

  7. angi says:

    Beautiful post. My heart breaks for your whole family at the loss of your father. What a blessing to have had the opportunity, not only to honor your dad’s passing, but in really seeing and knowing his love for you.

  8. Christina says:

    I adore you for being able to write about this. I mentioned the death of my parents on my blog a couple of times,but I am not able to share the whole experience like this.
    You can be proud that you could do this. Death is a tabu in our society and it is important to share with such honesty how you and your family dealt with it and went through the process of letting go. It may give another family the strength to stay instead of just anxiously waiting for a call from the hospital.
    Christina’s most recent post: Pittsburgh Day 7 – Rounding corners

  9. Dawn says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Britt. Also, I’m so glad that you got to hold is hand and be by his side.

  10. kateanon says:

    Britt, I’m both sorry for your loss and glad you got to be there at the end. I am not sure there is ever a time, no matter how old we are, that we don’t need our dad. I understand wanting that one last acknowledgement of love, even if it feels selfish to ask for it. I’m happy in a way, you got to have that. I’ll be thinking of your family the next couple weeks as you go through this. I’ll be thinking of my family also, and of my dad, because I know this time will come for us sooner rather than later.
    kateanon’s most recent post: trajectory

  11. Poppy says:


    I am glad you were there for him. I am sad that you had to see him go.

    Poppy’s most recent post: about to happen

  12. Alex says:

    Oh, how my heart goes out to you. I’m so sorry.
    Alex’s most recent post: Hello and How Are You

  13. Oh Brit, this was indeed beautiful. It’s so hard to let the go. I was with my Momma when she took her last breath over 6 years ago. It was so hard and took me years to deal with losing my best friend, but you what she said my name that morning and that is what I needed to hear from her one last time.
    Jill of All Trades’s most recent post: Babies, Moons and Flowers

  14. Darla says:

    God bless you Britt.

  15. Jill says:

    Brit, love your blog! You make me happy. :)

  16. Bre says:

    Crying. So beautiful, Britt. Rest peacefully, Rick.
    Bre’s most recent post: Cowgirls Don’t Cry

  17. Kent says:

    So much perspective. Not surprising.

    I love that about the photo book. What a sweet surprise that must have been.
    Kent’s most recent post: Always Buy Travel Medical Insurance

  18. Jaime says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, but I am glad you have found some peace. And what a precious moment when you got to see that scrapbook.

  19. Liz says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Britt, but so glad you and your dad got those moments. Hugs and love.
    Liz’s most recent post: Closing the Grief Cycle

  20. thanks for sharing. Very sorry for your loss. My mom is starting hospice and will be seeing her through that as she is 89 with liver cancer.

  21. Chrisor says:

    I’m so glad you got to be with him at the end and say goodbye. I know it was so hard to see him that way and heartbreaking to let him go. You were already a strong person but this experience has made you even stornger. Death is always a harsh reminder to enjoy every second we have on this earth. My deepest sympathies, Britt.
    Chrisor’s most recent post: Eye See You

  22. So sorry for your loss.
    Corey Feldman’s most recent post: Sex

  23. Amber says:

    I am crying my eyes out right now. This pulled at all those places I usually try to keep buried or locked away. I am so sorry for your loss, and I must say that you are focusing on the right things — I have been where you are, when I was 20 years old, and … gah. By the time I got to the scrapbook I could no longer hold myself back.
    Amber’s most recent post: trouble afoot at the circle k

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