Guest Post by Tanja Gardner
Nothing prepares you to hear that someone you love has died
No matter how well you think you’ve braced for it, you’re never truly ready to hear the words, “Your father passed away last night.”
Don’t get me wrong. Those words didn’t hit me out of the blue. They marked the end of a painful, year-long battle with lung cancer that Dad had fought for far longer than anyone would have believed possible back when he was diagnosed. Originally given just 3-6 months, he was still living in his own house nearly a year later.
Then, a few weeks ago, everything changed.
We’d known the day would come – but that didn’t make it easier to acknowledge that he just wasn’t coping any more. I thought my heart would break the day we moved him into full-time residential care – I remember standing in the door of the facility, tears streaming down my face, my throat so tight I could barely breathe.
And that was where, four short weeks later, he died.
When someone you love is terminally ill, the grieving starts long before they actually pass
I remember, back when Dad discovered his tumour, nearly choking on the shock, fear, worry and grief. I tried to remind myself that almost everyone loses a parent, sooner or later. I tried try to remember that I’d already survived the death of my mother in my teens: I could get through this again as an adult.
I knew both these things intellectually, but that knowledge didn’t begin to touch the seething maelstrom inside me.
Then you realise: you have a choice about how you respond
Eventually, the emotion-storm passed and I realised I could choose where I went from that point forward. I knew that I wanted to spend as much time with Dad as humanly possible while I still could. At the same time, I wanted to maintain as much of my normal life as possible. It helped that Dad wanted that for me too.
I think I did a pretty good job of it, all things considered. I drove the 3 hours to visit him and back every 2-3 weekends while maintaining my day job during the week, plus starting up my own fledgling copywriting business. I even managed to complete a few 10ks, a full marathon, and a couple of halfs while I was at it.
More than one person asked me how I managed to keep it all together over that last year. I think my answer boils down to four conscious choices.
1. From the beginning, I chose the story I wanted to tell myself about everything
Our human experiences are always half what actually happens, and half what we tell ourselves about them. We’re all of us natural born storytellers. And sometimes, we can make that work for us.
I remember deciding who I wanted to be in the story I told myself about Dad’s illness. I didn’t want “my character” to be someone who ended up bitter, broken or resentful. Instead, I promised I’d tell myself the tale of someone who was deeply compassionate with herself and the people around her. Someone who used her experiences – however painful – to deepen, grow and learn. Someone who grieved when she needed to and loved in the moments in between.
That story then created the context and foundation for all my other choices.
2. I chose to allow myself to experience whatever was there for me each moment – good and bad
As much as I possibly could, I tried to mindfully be with whatever came up for me. There were moments the grief-waves threatened to crash over me like tsunamis. And to the best of my ability, I simply let them. I cried in my car. I cried as I ran. I cried to my friends. I made way too many dashes from my desk to the ladies’ room when the emotion surges inconveniently overpowered me at work.
But there were many, many moments where I wasn’t actively grieving. And in those moments, joy and gratitude were almost always available if I only let myself touch them. So I laughed with friends, relaxed into my husband’s love, delighted in the challenge of pushing myself physically, and breathed in the beauty of the world around me.
And I tried to remind myself that neither state – grief nor gratitude – invalidated the other one.
3. I chose to overtly, honestly ask for what I needed
I can’t begin to describe how big this choice was for me. I’ve never been good at asking people for things – too scared of being seen as “needy”, “selfish” or “high-maintenance”. But I was pretty damn sure I wouldn’t get to tell myself the story I wanted if I burnt out. Certainly I wouldn’t get to make the most of whatever time I was granted with Dad.
So I asked my workplace if I could go to a four-day week, to give me more time with him. I asked my friends to be patient when I didn’t have the energy to spend time with them. I asked my husband to be there for me when I needed to melt down and fall apart for a while. I asked my clients for their understanding when I couldn’t meet a previously agreed deadline.
I didn’t ask with any sense of entitlement or expectation. I simply asked. And wonder of wonders: almost every time, the person I asked said “yes”.
4. I chose to give myself permission to get it wrong – over and over again
Another part of my story to myself was about someone who was an imperfect human being – someone who tried, but frequently screwed up. After all, that’s what I was going to be, permission or no, right? So yes…
- … sometimes I hid from what I was feeling and escaped into superhero movies and trashy TV.
- … sometimes I didn’t ask for what I needed and ended up spectacularly melting down because of it.
- … sometimes I resented Dad for being sick and hated myself for my callousness.
- … sometimes I pouted and melodramatised and screamed at the universe until my throat near bled about how fucking unfair it all was.
But because I’d given myself permission to mess up, I could have compassion for myself in those moments. I was human. I didn’t have to get it right all the time. And I didn’t have to stay stuck in the guilt and self-judgment that would come from demanding a perfection I could never achieve.
In the end, there’s really no one right way to cope
So was that the “right” way to cope with Dad’s illness and death? I’m going to say “no” – but only because I don’t believe there is a right way. That said, what I did got me through the past year, and allowed me to actually enjoy my precious, precious time with Dad. So it was *a* way, and it was, apparently, a good one for me.
And hey, if one (or more) of the choices I’ve talked about inspires or resonates with you, why not try it for yourself? Why not see if it helps you with whatever you’re going through right now?
After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
Tanja Gardner is a professional copywriter, word weaver and story spinner at Crystal Clarity Copywriting Ltd. She helps difference-makers like you write with concise, creative clarity that your readers intuitively “get”. That means they understand EXACTLY what you offer – so you can make more of a difference in their lives.