When People Die, Take Nothing Personally because Things are About to Get Weird

There is a lot of conversation about our culture’s fear around death, and how that fear stops us from actually talking about it in meaningful ways that would, perhaps, make the process that we all go through less scary. I can tell you that this is something I want, and is one of the reasons for the shift in this blog. This desire on my part to write about it, my interactions with the journey of people dying, is critical to my own processing of my grief around my dad’s death and the illness of one of my best friends. BUT, I must admit before starting, that things get REALLY WEIRD when people die. People react from a base, animal level. People get scared. People get angry. The last three sentences get combined into grief bombs. So, if you can, remember the four agreements:

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (get it right now if you don’t have it)

As my dad was dying, my mom transformed quickly into someone strange and foreign to me. Traditionally, my mom is a cool person, and I mean that in a temperature-personality way. She isn’t cold, but also isn’t warm. I think this comes from her years of experiences, and taking care of a sick person for 15 years. When my dad was diagnosed with the word “cancer” in August (it took over a month to get an actual diagnosis due to COVID and the fact that they live in a rural part of a rural state where there are few hospitals), my mom was very caring toward him. She showed him a lot of care and consideration. She thought he was behaving oddly, especially crying all the time, but she seemed to roll with it with more love than perhaps she had had before. Part of her, I suppose, knew or suspected that something was different this time.

Then there was the day they met with the oncologist and received an actual diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, the lung cancer you get after a lifetime of smoking. Instead of going home like they thought they would, after the appointment they admitted my dad to the hospital for tests. He never left the hospital. There were days when he was mostly normal. At that time, I had come back to Texas and was here for about a week and a half. I talked to him every day.The first few days he would say, “I don’t know why I am still here! I suppose they have to wait for the results of all these damned tests!”. Then his voice changed and he became extremely breathless and hoarse. He could barely talk, or didn’t want to. It didn’t matter; by then I called him a few times a day and we would talk for about a minute or two at a time.

Then there was the strange day, the one I will never forget or ever understand. At that time, the doctors chose not to tell him he was terminal and there was no treatment. I felt that this was wrong, my brother agreed, and finally our mom did, too. It was Tuesday, and earlier in the day a doctor had told him about the diagnosis, told him straight, no bullshit. I called him that afternoon and he was perfectly clear. He wasn’t wheezing, wasn’t hoarse, and he didn’t want to get off the phone in 1- 2 minutes. He told me a lot. He told me that he knew he was going to die, and that is was all right. He told me that he had had a good life. He kept repeating how we had to take care of our mom. I told him: of course we will take care of her! But remember she is really good at taking care of herself: she will be fine! He said, “no no no you must take care of her”. I told him that we would.

In retrospect, he knew something that day. It is said that sometimes, as people die, they perk up, become super clear, and seem as if nothing is wrong with them: the disease fades. No one knows why. I found this to be true with my father, but not true with Cody’s grandma or my friend Meredith. Meredith was on so much medication by her last few days that perhaps that explains it. Cody’s grandma just stopped talking during the last week of her life and would only nod or shake her head if I asked her something. Dying is a process we know a little bit about, but not alot.

The next morning, I called the hospital and my mom answered. I said, “oh hi! I didn’t expect you to be there.” She told me that something had happened, that my dad was unconscious and on oxygen and machines and tubes, and they did not know exactly why. Later when I talked to his palliative care nurse, she told me that his pain was so severe that she thought once she finally got his levels correct, his body shut down a little bit. At that time, she told me to wait til the next day to decide to come back to Maine, but after talking to my brother that night, I was on a plane the next morning.

I told you that my mom was so caring and considerate of my dad in the 5 weeks before the last week of his life. When I arrived to Maine for that second visit, she felt strange to me. She felt hostile and angry. She took our her hostility and anger on me. Nothing I said would come without a comment. I felt I could not win, and that she only liked my brother. When the three of us were together, she would be closer to him, physically and emotionally, and be mean to me. At first I took this personally as I was grieving, too. I was losing someone as well. I felt that she was acting like she used to act toward my dad when he was healthier. She was famously passive-aggressive and hostile to him almost all the time.

One day the three of us were walking on the Shore Path, one of my favorite walks in Bar Harbor. We were talking about family and old family photos as my brother and I had been going through them. She was telling us about a photo she wanted to find with our cousin as a little boy. At the same time, our cousin and his mom were going through a hard moment in their often difficult relationship, and I made a comment about his mom being a really tough person to have as a mother. I received another harsh comment and I said, “I love you but I cannot win with you! I cannot say anything to you right now!”

And then stuff got weird. My mom started screaming. She was crying. She flailed her arms in the air. She kept saying “I can’t do this right now! This has been 15 bloody years of this!”. She spoke in a way that sounded strange: deep and guttural and pure pain. It was pain pouring out of her, out of her mouth, out of her hands and arms, out of her heart and mind. Screaming, shrieking, flailing. I didn’t know what to do. I said, “it’s ok, it’s ok, I just need you to calm down. Just calm down please”. She walked away from me and left me on the Shore Path. I called my husband who told me to remember that her husband was dying.

As the child, it was very hard for me to remember this in moments. In moments of calm clarity, later in the evening with my friends, in a calm space in which we could talk about it, it all made sense. In those moments of intensity, of loss, fear, powerlessness, mystery, and confusion, it all gets muddied. This is a lesson for all of us.

It took me days to not take the things my mom was saying and doing personally. It took another talk with my husband and one with my brother. It took some reading and researching grief online to understand she had shifted her feelings onto the person next closest to her: me. I am the firstborn, the baby who arrived when they were happy and in love. I am the baby born in England, in their sweet house in Haslemere. I am the daughter. I look like my father, and I am so much like him emotionally and psychologically.

I would love to know why death brings up these feelings of intense, base, emotional madness. I would like to know if women feel it more than men; perhaps it is just felt differently. I wonder if there is a way to not feel these feelings of panicked loss, or if this is part of each of our own understandings of what it means to die ourselves, and to lose our loved ones.

It is a mystery. I know only one thing: I am not afraid of death, either my own or my loved ones’. The loss of death, which for me means I cannot talk to the person anymore, makes me profoundly sad and yet, with time, I can come to accept it. It is a mystery.

Rainy Monday

Today the students worked on puzzle cubes and, mysteriously, more capybaras appeared on the drawing wall. Students right now are really into capybaras.

My friend who is in the hospital is doing all right and finally getting some dots connected in terms of care. It seems to me that if you were to have to navigate the US health system on your own, you would just tear your hair out.

I was thinking about one of my favorite times with my friend, when she and our another old friend stayed at an aunt’s house in Port O Connor. The house was just beautiful; up on stilts, you were at eye level with palm trees. The wind whipped perfectly, and one night we made dinner in the kitchen, mushrooms with pasta I think, and we told stories and we heard my friend’s whole story for the first time. It is not my story to tell without permission, but it involves all kinds of things that should be written in a book.

That night we had a fire in the fireplace, and if I remember rightly, it was cold in POC, which sometimes it was. I miss going down there although the last time I was there was only last summer. We should have stayed longer, me and my two friends and the dog.

This morning just as I was waking up, I had a dream. I was outside on a lawn somewhere in England, and my cousins were all around on the grass. I was sitting and they were standing but I was child high and all their kids were moving around. I realized it was at a pub so I went inside and my Dad, young with dark hair, was sitting at a small table and he smiled at me. He asked me if I was all right, if everything was all right. I couldn’t talk to him: the words wouldn’t come out and were completely hushed as if their air had been compressed right out of them. He smiled and then he was outside the window with a rolling suitcase. He waved at me and walked out of the windowframe.

My Odes to Grief

“I used to be a great and powerful man”, my father said to me the third-to-last time I saw him, in October of 2021. I walked into his room and he looked so old: white as a sheet, with slightly pink skin, hair all akimbo, eyes wet with tears. He spent those last few weeks crying so much of the time.

I said, “you ARE a great and powerful man, and you know as well as I do that strength comes from here” (pointing to his heart) “and here” (pointing to his head). He apologized for crying and I said, “well you know me, I am the most emotional person in the world and I cry all the time“.

He would die about 6 weeks later, about one week after speaking to me oh-so-clearly on the phone from his hospital bed in Bar Harbor, Maine for the last time.

I have had a hard time writing lately. I am not sure if it is the pandemic, the death of Cody’s grandmother who lived with us, teaching during the pandemic, graduate school, the nonstop droning length of COVID19, or my father’s death. But now, I am faced with two immediacies. I am gripped by grief: it is holding on to me something fierce and fast. It will not let go. People keep telling me just to “let it all out” but I am afraid to let it all out lest it consumes me and renders me a puddle of tears on the floor.

Those people who know me or my father, Michael Blythe, know that we had a very difficult relationship. He was a difficult person; he was highly intelligent in all areas except for emotions and communication. He was afraid of emotions and so diluted them, and he was afraid of communicating his emotions so he covered them with anger and rage. Ask his friends, the breakfast crew, about how much they loved him while recognizing the fierceness inside.

At the same time that my dad died and I came to understand the grief of a child for her parent, specifically the grief of a daughter for her father, especially a daughter who is so like her father minus the rage and anger, one of my best friends, my sister, really, has taken a turn in her cancer journey and now is in the hospital, breathing with the aid of oxygen, and worrying us all very much.

Death comes a-knocking. We must welcome it as an old friend, as one of the only guarantees of this life, and yet, we don’t talk about it because it is so frightening and so utterly sad.

I was speaking to a friend last night about my feelings of grief. She said, “you aren’t writing”. I said, “I know. I am afraid”. She encouraged me to start again.

I feel I am of two minds. One of them is rational and logical and understands that everyone dies and that it is ok. That brain says: everything in life is fine, and it is just sad that you can’t talk to your father anymore. The other mind is a tiny animal with gnashed teeth and sharp claws whose heart is outside her body. I had an internal analogy at first that I was a reverse pincushion; instead of the pearly ends facing out to protect hands and fingers, my sharp ends were facing out to catch me, gouge me deep, and feel the horrific bottomless pain that is losing your father.

The night that he died I stayed up so late, drinking a whole bottle of wine by myself over the course of a long evening (this was when I thought that alcohol would help: turns out, it makes everything much worse). I spent the evening looking at photos of me and my dad, especially of photos when I was little. I looked at photo after photo and I began to ask myself: what did we even fight about? I could not answer the question; I still do not know. I think it was that I was a headstrong teenager, and he was going through a crisis after losing his job, and those two storms met head-on and became thunderclouds that brewed for twenty years. I am so blessed that we smoothed those clouds out the last three years, he attended my wedding to Cody, and we talked all the time. I am so thankful to Cody for showing me the importance of healing my relationship with my dad, because he had lost his many years before, and was, like me now, always wishing he could call him.

The night he died I cried and cried. I felt like I was drowning under a heavy wave of water that would not let me up. I felt I was on a cliff’s edge about to fall. I felt a huge weight, like a stone, on my heart. It pushed deeper and deeper down and in, like what I imagine a black hole does to matter: I was collapsing. I went to bed at 2:30 and my mom woke me up at 4 to go to the hospital. I went downstairs and sat on her couch and said, “pull yourself together, kid. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said, “I am driving you to the hospital”. She said no. I said, “yes, I am” and she handed me the keys. We arrived at 4:25 and he had passed just a few minutes earlier at 4:19.

In that room, he was so peaceful, laying slightly to his side. His face was pink, pinker than it had been anytime over the last few months. When he finally was medicated for pain, he received so much medication that the nurses told us he must have been suffering for a long time. This was no surprise: he was always a pain in the ass about admitting anything was wrong. The nurses had cracked the window to let his soul slip out into the air, up to the mountains, out to the sea. He was so peaceful. He never had been so in his life. I sat next to him and smiled. In my mind, I said, “Daddy? Where are you? Are you on a plane? A ship? Traveling somewhere first class on an adventure?” I suspected so, and still do.

Grief is grabbing hold of me and won’t let go, and one of the only ways I have ever found to discover what I really feel and am thinking about is through writing. I also know that writing about death is hard for others to read, but perhaps that can change. Another friend and I were talking today about our friend in the hospital, and she told me that she envisions me as someone who writes and gardens, gardens and writes. In other words, she was the second angel to appear with the same message: write, Patience, write.

As I walk through the stages of grieving my father, experiencing an immense, tangible, and tragic shift in the public schools in which I have worked for 16 years, and support my friend who is also, perhaps, transitioning away from this reality into another one, I will write it all down. I hope you will join me.

Thanks for your patience.