Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflections on Dying Part 2 of 3

February 19, 2013

On November 5, my 91 year old father died from Congestive Heart Failure and Pulmonary Fibrosis after 36 hard hours struggling for breath. The first calls that he was taking a bad turn came on Sunday morning. After talking with the hospice nurse, I decided to fly out on Tuesday morning to be with him. He died Monday night. I felt guilty and more than sad to miss my usual role in vigil, but was surprised by new ways I cared for him after death. I explore these in this blog and the next, as well as the help they gave me.

There are many silent experiences around death. This blog, based on journal entries, recounts one of them: a spiritual experience just after his death. In it, my father appears during meditation and we engage. This may seem preposterous to you, but I hope you will read with an open mind, leave a comment and stay tuned for the third and final installment.

Jeanne Denney

November 5, 2012

Dad told Leici yesterday that he only had 4 more days. He said the time was near. I will fly out tomorrow a.m. Yesterday, crying in Nick’s arms, knowing he is really going now. Last night at the end of group, Iris Dement randomly comes on the Ipod from shuffle singing “After you’ve gone” (a song she wrote to her dying father). I sob and the group holds me. It’s good for everyone that we do this.

November 6, 2012 – On the airplane to PDX

Last night around 9 or 9:30 Dad died at home in his bedroom that overlooks Portland. Mary, Ken and Betty were with him. I wasn’t. Instead, I did three unusual sessions, then drove home to pack for the morning flight.

I felt Dad all day. I knew he was dying. At home around 9 p.m. I stop packing with an urgent feeling that I should focus and pray for him, then that I should call and have someone put the phone to his ear just to tell him I love him. My call comes at the moment of his last breath. Mary, crying when she picks up the phone, saying “Oh Jeanne…he just…he just. Just as you called…” Betty had told him that she loved him. Ken and Mary were in the room. I notice that I didn’t feel sad for him, he was so well honored, well attended and surrounded with love, complete. I selfishly felt disappointed for me. This wasn’t how I had pictured it. I know better than this crazy thought, but I have it anyway. I should have gone yesterday, I should have gone today. My inner picture of me as self-appointed death guardian crumbles and an ill-defined promise to help seems broken. Was it broken? I should have known. Etc.

There is the flush of exhilaration that accompanies a new death. Later I ache like a mother who misses their child’s graduation or first day of school because of business. I do what anyone in this situation does, I give opinions and suggestions by phone. I ask Mary to keep his body as still as possible for as long as possible. “The morticians can wait”, I say. “Ask them if they can embalm him after I get there”. Thankfully, no resistance to my strange requests.

That night, sleeping is different. I feel newly skinless, unprotected. New world without father or mother. Nick feels this too. Things between us are distant and difficult for weeks, but now we cry and sleep together, admittedly little. At 5:30 a.m. we leave for the airport. Yesterday, the very day that Dad died, Teddy started to take down the old maple that’s been dying in the front yard for 10 years. How apt. Dad was nothing if not a man of trees, a nurseryman. Four trees worth of debris from Hurricane Sandy lay in the yard, war fallen, broadcasting mourning. Pulling out of the driveway. Dull light. Raw world. New treeless land without skin.

“Fancy finding you here”

Settled into my airplane seat after take-off I decide to meditate, the first chance to center  I have had.

I have practiced “finding” people who are dying or in comatose states for years in hospice work, occasionally people who have died. Finding them means seeing them in my mind’s eye. I don’t know how I do this.

When I close my eyes I quickly try to find Dad.  It takes no effort. I immediately see his face without a body floating in the black void midair to the left in my visual field. I rarely have a face so aggressively near. I am startled by it. It is a younger face, puzzled and blank, staring as if seeing me for the first time, which perhaps he is. I don’t expect this or know how to engage with it. I feel uncomfortable, weirdly afraid to look in his eyes.

For a few minutes I open my physical eyes and get busy with the world around me, ipod, notebook, shoes. I may be trying to make it go away. When I close them again it is still there, hovering in a black void. I see his eyes again, looking deeper. There is something kind of stultified, clutching and afraid in them. Is this my father newly dead? I hardly know how to meet him or whether to take this experience seriously, after all I am in an airplane. Something is called for, but what? Finally I do what I would do for any hospice patient. I place myself in the picture with him, put my arms around this face, talk to it, thank it, and reassure it. He gets smaller and seems to grow a body. Suddenly we are standing together in this black void, the same size. This is all something like Alice in Wonderland.

I remembered once just after a heart surgery at 85 Dad told of waking in ICU from what sounded to me like a scarier type of Near Death Experience (NDE). “I couldn’t see light or hear sound, I called but no one answered. I thought that I had died but no one was there.” he said, tearing up. I could see him asking “Is that what death is going to be like?”. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about dying. The place I found Dad now was much like this. He seemed lost in a void. Not an evil void, just an empty, dark one as if stuck or disoriented in a tunnel he could not get through.

To say that Dad wasn’t much for the metaphysical is an understatement. He was a fiercely pragmatic Methodist. Church made my mother happy and was “a good social institution”. He served on budget committees, flirted at the coffee hour, went to the men’s breakfast’s and sang in baritone but was not quite a believer. Something in the spiritual stuff irritated him. If he had a prayer life other than the perfunctory family dinner prayer or the care he gave plants in the garden I never knew about it. He was a man of business with many friends in body, not so many in spirit. Dad’s views on the other side?: “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”. This void was not his terrain. So when I showed up….well, let’s just say it was possible (if you believe any of this) that I was a sight for sore eyes. He clung to me with kind of a “What took you so long?” look.

Dear reader if this seems a bit unhinged from your reality, I understand, but consider that there are many ways of seeing and knowing. Death challenges us to use new ones. I learned this way sitting with non-communicative hospice patients with closed eyes. I did not know what they were aware of or if they wanted me to be there, but searched for clues for how to engage or comfort. As I did this images arose in my visual field. I just watched them. This one sitting in a field of daisies, picking them. That one struggling hard to get up a steep hill in concrete shoes. Another standing before the ocean gazing outward. Another looking hard for something in a field of grass. They were symbolic and highly specific. I most often saw myself interacting and finding ways to help.

In sum, I’ve had enough strange experiences and confirming coincidences to respect these pictures. I interact with them in interesting ways; at the same time they have a trajectory and movement of their own. In other words I don’t create them with my mind. I am observer and participant, not creator. I learned that if I look, there is almost always a source of light, a destination, or something to turn toward. If there isn’t, there is a process being intently focused on. I am usually there to help in some way….chiseling off the concrete shoes, for example, or pointing them in a different direction. I might have a conversation, bring encouragement, give new ideas, listen. I am a companion.

Where two worlds meet

There were two immediate problems with finding Dad here. First, I wasn’t used to a father having a spiritual form. I carefully hid spirituality from my family, and suffered the angst of them not understanding this weird, black sheep part of me. Not only didn’t Dad understand my spiritual explorations, he didn’t get my profession as therapist, my research, writing or interest in death (“what is it that you do again?” “And people pay you for that?” “But what do you actually DO?” “What is this Hospice thing again?” etc). He tried. You have to give him credit. I had fantasized that by supporting his dying he would finally get it. This wasn’t what I imagined.

When I got through first minutes of discomfort, I got that he needed help, which brought about the second problem. He was disoriented. I naturally tried to turn him toward the point of light in the distance which I could see but apparently he could not. However, his eyes were so rigidly fixed on me I could not convince him to look away. I needed help. Remembering Dad was a social animal I finally said…”Dad, it is time you met my friends…” I am not hugely social in ordinary life, but in places like this it is different. I invited a troupe of spiritual benefactors to come and come they did, big beautiful, radiant beings. “Welcome to my world Dad. Let me introduce you …”

There was a wonderfully surreal and comical aspect to this vision. Dad was a party thrower into his 90’s. In life, I would have loved Dad to be at my parties (supposing I threw them) or to introduce him to impressive friends (if I had any) because my life would become visible and worthy of his interest. I would appear on his map. I was a loved part of his life but he was strangely absent in mine. I knew his friends, he didn’t know mine. Not being visible or having parents actually in my life felt normal, but was a long-suppressed sorrow. Here it was as if I was introducing him to Ronald Reagan, Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Babe Ruth and Hank Williams all at once as friends. His shock of new understanding. My embarrassment. I saw myself negotiating his care, “Give him anything he needs and charge it to my account” (my account?! what account? I am thinking). They dressed him in a new gold robe, placed something crown-like on his head and off he went with them. He looked beautiful, relieved, excited, grateful as he started off toward the point of light on the horizon. Tired from the concentration, I took a break, stumbled over the lady next to me to get to the airplane bathroom.

A note here on what it means to see and communicate in this void space. It is not exactly like you hear words. You just receive thoughts in download. I see and watch the “me” in these pictures with detachment and curiosity as if watching TV.

I have no idea how time works in this place, but back in my seat I check back in and see him still walking away with the radiant others. This seems wrong so I jump back in to catch up with them. As we walk we chat. “Dad, your obit turned out really well.” (he had been worried about that), “We’ll have a good party for you, don’t worry.” “Remember how much love you have left behind. We are so grateful.” We walked toward the doorway growing ever larger and brighter. I made a quick proposal: “Dad, maybe we could work together more now, kind of business partners of spirit like you and Ken.” (Dad and my brother were business partners. I thought he would like this idea). At the rim of the opening: his parents, my Mom and her parents, Aunt Bernice and others peering out. Radiant. He seems amazed.

Reunion.

Our tearful parting there lasted awhile. I said that I had to go back, but we would be together and find ways to be in touch. I told him that he would probably have things to do, but when he was done to find me in my dreams. I can’t say how I knew to say these things. “We can be in touch that way or we can talk through the trees.” I seemed to be explaining things of both my life and this world to him, things even I could not understand. I could only tell that he was elated, understanding me in the dawn of new respect. I encouraged him to not be afraid of spirit, to walk into this new/old world just as he walked into a new spring season after winter. I returned then, but not before a few tears with them. How hard to return.

Then it was dark and complete behind my eyelids. Dad was gone.

Post Script

Was this wish fulfillment, Psychosis, projection, fantasy? Hallucination, delusions of grandeur, dissociation, menopausal ungluing? I can hear the voices of psychoanalysis saying that my psyche made this up to defend against guilt for not being with him at death. I can’t know. There is little confirmation for these experiences in normal awareness, but occasionally some. For example, once  I “found” a patient on a ferryboat clutching a pier so that it could not depart, this after weeks of helping her “walk up a steep hill” in a series of hospice visits. I handed her a bouquet of flowers so she could let go. Moments later she took her last breath. There are other stories like this.  In the case of Dad I had only three pieces of evidence: the story from the ICU, my tears and the fact that I felt different, happier even elated, stronger and more resolved. I felt I had helped Dad just as significantly as if I were by his bedside, maybe moreso. I lightened. I didn’t regret not being with him as much and could appreciate that my siblings had had new experiences that were right for them. They might have avoided these if I had been there.

Where do these images come from? It is hard to know. People “see” the unseen in unique ways. My job is simply to report that shamanic sight experiences like these occur. And, in this case, allowing it helped me feel I had fulfilled a holy compact, healed an old sorrow, been known, even finally celebrated somehow. I felt more myself and had less pain. Would Dad have found his way without me? Most likely (Experts report that 1-15% of NDE’s are of this type but usually resolve in time to a more typical NDE). It just might have been a lonelier, scarier trip.

As the plane landed through the morning fog I remembered that it was election day. An enduring legacy of Dad’s death is that it kept me from voting for Obama’s second term while he managed to vote against him before he died. “Very clever Dad! You won that one.” I’m chuckling. The last of our little jokes.  For now.

So we begin inventing all the new ways of finding, helping and knowing each other.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.

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22 Responses to “Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflections on Dying Part 2 of 3”

  1. Katherine said

    Thank you for this beautiful writing. It made me think again about the day my father died. I wasn’t with him (I was still at home, 5 hours away, and due to visit in two days.) That entire day, things happened I couldn’t understand – something made me stop on my morning run, stand still, open up my hands cup-like, facing the sky, and say, out loud, “OK universe, you need to hold me tenderly today.” Later, after my hospice shift, a conversation with the hospice volunteer co-ordinator about what might be keeping my father from “letting go.” Her words so tender and wise. Everything that happened that day brought my father’s presence closer and closer to me. When the phone rang at 10 that night, I knew he had died before I picked up the phone. My sweet, brave, formidable 94 year old father, passing.
    I am moved by your writing about being with people in this way –
    all the best,
    Katherine

  2. Katherine, thanks so much for sharing your own sweet story here. It is a place, I hope, for collecting them so that together we can remake the map of this great terrain. I am sure you have much to say and if you ever feel moved to write more please let me know. Always looking for contributors. Thanks again.

    Jeanne

  3. neal levy said

    Dear Jeanne,
    I have not (yet) had an experience like this, but your sharing of yours in the way you have opens up possibility for me that is exciting and comforting moreso than a little bit scary. I thank you for your honesty, bravery, and skill at articulating.
    love,
    Neal

    • Ah Neal, thanks for this response and honesty. This material is endlessly fascinating and gives me strange comfort though I can’t say why. I know that it doesn’t feel that way to everyone, but maybe we can each find our doors to the unseen one day and it won’t be scary? I don’t know. Gratitude.

  4. visnow77 said

    I think that however we choose to communicate with the dead, it has meaning. Even if our own minds are making it all up, it’s meaningful and healing to us, certainly. And from a deep point of view, all the world is spirit, so it’s entirely plausible that what you experienced was a form of communication and healing for your dad. Thank you for this moving story, Jeanne.

    • Violet! Thanks for sticking your head in here and reading this. I am grateful for your reminder and hoped that would come across. Still, strange to put these deep inward places out there. Good to have supportive and loving readers. Thank you. Jeanne

  5. Jeanne; miss you, and I am moved by the words and story and connection with your Dad. It makes me feel sane makes, me feel part of the experience. It gave me hope and a reminder that we are always always right where we are suppose to be for the greater good, even when we doubt it. I feel hope about my own relation-ships, now that might not have come to mind before I read this and that is : They might actually “Get me” in and after death,…. what a concept I can look forward to Thanks Love Dawn I’ll be back in NY soon hope to get together then

    • Ah Dawn. So nice to hear from you here and glad to have this response! If writing some of these things gives hope, how great is that. Perfect outcome. Look forward to seeing you. Jeanne

  6. Dear Jeanne,

    What a beautiful piece. I don’t recall if I mentioned, but I was with both of my parents when they passed: my mom in 1989 and my father in 2009. My father was 97 when he died. The description of your father in the void reminded me of how I would often hear my dad’s voice calling me the last few months of his life. I would hear him yell out for me in the middle of the night – waking me, as if he were here – in my apartment when he lived about 7 miles away in another borough. His voice was so loud it would startle me. He always said everything was ok when I checked in with him the next day. Amazing, how we know. And how beautiful that you got to help your father, perhaps when he needed you most.

    Warmly,
    Theresa

    • Thank you Theresa! That is so interesting about your Dad. I am always amazed and the unique access we each have. When. How. I am curious about what sense you made of it at the time. Or now.

      Thanks for responding so deeply. Jeanne

      • I think he was needing me and was afraid, so thus calling out to me. But consciously, when I asked, was either unaware of it or couldn’t tell me.

        It is amazing. We are all intertwined, connected in the Great Mystery.

        Blessings,
        Theresa

  7. Susan said

    Jeanne,
    Thank you for this beautiful reflection and your sharing of such a tender and powerful time….your self honesty and willingness to disclouse in such a way is healing to me as a reader. Blessings to you.

    I am also grateful for your sharing how you bring your presence and focus to hospice patients through images that come through you and speak for themselves. That you follow the images with sensitivity and compassion offering “companionship” to the dying is something that gives me great comfort as I now understand what I will wish for at that time in my life.

    When my own Dad died several years ago, I had gone home (2 hour drive) to pick up more clothes and take a breath from the ICU. I intended to return the next day, but the minute I got home my entired being “knew” I needed to turn right around driving back. It was a distinct visceral calling. I walked into the hospital bypassing the much needed restroom to find my brother surrounded by hospital staff harshly inquiring if he wanted to revive Dad (who had just taken his last breath), even though Dad had filled out every official form informing them he wished to be let go. I was able to stand by my brother and say the words needed to release my Dad from his physical body. With tears. A final honoring of a man who was steadfast in his life and parenting.

    And,even as part of me regretted not being there for his last brief, my wiser self knew I was there for what was needed, both for my Dad, my brother and myself.

    Sending love to you,
    Susan

    • Ah Susan. Thank you for this deep sharing. And for reading.

      Like you, not being there was hard for me to accept and yet as a hospice worker it is so easy to see that this is often what is most often needed for release. How intently we are involved with the passage of those we love, especially those that have received us. We are so attached to attachment, but processes of detachment sometimes need…detachment! Detachment is indeed love, but how hard to remember. Sounds like you danced that dance just perfectly, with skill of heart and grace.

      Blessings to both of our Dads. And to all of us who try to walk these passages with (as Mark would say) 1% or maybe 2% of consciousness.

      Jeanne

    • Katherine said

      What a gift you gave to your father, Susan. We give to our parents and the other people we love who are dying in so many different ways. I am so glad you were able to stand up for your father and honour his final wishes.
      All the best,
      Katherine

  8. laura said

    Dear Jeanne,

    Beautiful and powerful. Thank you.

  9. Your writing is always so beautiful, so evocative – and this time, that is there but there is also this tenderness and this luminous thread of something exquisite and vulnerable and rare. Thank you for this glimpse into your own story and the way that you work with the dying, I am so moved. These images will be with me now.

    • Thank you Amy. And I happen to know that you have stories that are the same and even more dramatic and poignant…probably a book rather than a column!. Know that your stories are always welcome here.

  10. Trisha Runyan said

    Many years ago my mother phoned me to say that she was flying from Austin to Reno for one day and night to see her mother, my grandmother. I was flabbergasted because such a trip was out of character for Mother. When she arrived in Reno, she and my aunt went immediately to the nursing home where my grandmother was thrilled to see Mother. They played Chinese checkers and visited until it was time to leave. The plan was that Mother would visit again in the morning and return back to Austin. Instead, during the night a call came that my grandmother had suffered a stroke and that Mother and my aunt needed to come immediately. My aunt was not prepared emotionally and so Mother went alone and held my grandmother as she passed gently on. My mother was calm and flew home as scheduled while plans were made to bring my grandmother’s body back to Texas. There has not ever been a doubt in my mind that my grandmother “called” my mother to come help my aunt cope when the time came for grandmother to go on. My dad was critically ill five years ago and I had been with him in hospital for several days. I left the hospital to go home to shower and change, but was too exhausted to turn to return immediately, so I phoned a friend of my parents. She went immediately to hospital and was there with Mother when my dad began to cough deeply. Within moments his heart stopped. It was Good Friday, 3:00 p.m. Their friend was much more able to support Mother than I would have been. The timing of Dad’s passing was poetic in so many ways because he always refused to declare his faith in terms that others believed was essential to eternal peace. Once, thirty years ago I was admitted during the night to the hospital in severe respiratory distress of asthma. I was placed in a room with an elderly room and it was evident to me that she was dying, but she was alone and the staff seemed not to be aware of her. She passed on during the night and I received many apologies for being left alone with her. The fact is that I felt that I had been given the gift of being there for her at her time of passing. Now I live with my elderly mother and there are mornings when I walk into her room and think for a moment that she has gone during the night, which is her desire. My faith has been tainted with cynicism in the past decade, however, I confident that her faith will be rewarded, if that is the proper term and I am here to bear witness. Your writing about your father brought up memories I won’t write about here, however, perhaps I can find the courage to revisit them in quiet. Thank you. .

    • Trisha, thanks so much for taking the time to share all of these experiences. So much to be learned. It is a little known secret that the environment around a death is a very sacred and special one, perhaps even moreso than the hospital births I have doulaed. The perfection of things is seldom in question especially for souls who are participating in the process. I hope to hear from you again.

      Jeanne

  11. Peta Morton said

    Thank you so much for your honesty. What beautiful, touching words.

  12. Jeanne, thank you for sharing this loving and gracious and beautiful story with us. You were, no doubt, exactly where you needed to be for your father at his time of passing. I’m so blown away by the way you were able to “find” him and help him through his transition back to spirit.

    I recently discovered that I’m able to connect with spirit in a way similar to you. It never occurred to me that I might be able to step into their space in my minds eye, but since reading your story I’ve tried this and it’s definitely created a new experience for me. Thank you for sharing your story so openly and bravely.

    • Tracey, Thank you for this confirmation! I so appreciate hearing about what happens for others. Keep dancing in those realms. I am fairly certain that this is a real and good service.

      Hope to hear from you again.

      Jeanne

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