I can see my father in vibrant colors. He’s got snow white hair, earthy brown skin, and a speck of light reflecting off one of the lenses of his eyeglasses. Behind it is a tiny sparkle in his eye. Except that it’s an artificial sparkle. Years ago, in his 40s, his eyesight deteriorated and he had an implant surgically placed in his eye. He’s an old man. One who still likes to cook, and who is a hero to his grandsons: My 2 sons. He’s taught them everything that he knows. They can retell all of his stories from his Air Force days, and they can imitate his heavy bristly voice. He pretends that it annoys him, but secretly he’s entertained. That’s how I imagine it would be.

My father died almost 3 months ago after a long term chronic illness. He just missed his 60th birthday. My children are too young to understand what’s happened. My 3 year old knows that something has changed in our family dynamic, but he cannot articulate what it is. In his brief but wonderful life, he’s only ever known his grandfather to be sickly, either bedridden or planted in the living room or kitchen. For a long time my father was upset because his first grandson cried when he tried to hold him, or wouldn’t go to him once he began to walk. He was crabby about it. He wasn’t the type to take rejection well. So he did the only thing he could do to get the child’s attention: he offered him snacks. They spent their time together seated across from each other at the kitchen table, eating cheese crackers and applesauce, and whatever else he had that week.

The evening before my father passed away, I ran home to tend to both of my children before returning to the nursing home where he lay dying. I was in a quiet frenzy to make sure that the evening routines were kept. Dinner, baths, bedtime story, prayers. My son found every reason to run through the kitchen noisily, disturbing every object in his path, until I realized that my husband and I had been too quiet that evening. Intuition had told my child that something was wrong, but being just shy of 3 years old, he didn’t know to ask the question, “what’s going on?” I looked him in the eyes and explained to him that his grandfather was very sick and in a hospital, and that we needed to take care of him. He looked up at me and immediately I saw in his eyes that he understood, not about dying necessarily, but that something was changing. As recently as this week, he’s asked about his grandfather. But no sooner than he asks does he catch himself and confidently say in his well rehearsed best grown up tone, “Paw Paw’s in heaven!” He knows his grandfather is gone. When we visit my mother, I sit where my father used to sit in the kitchen, across from my son, and we eat snacks.

When you love someone, you have dreams for them even though you don’t realize it. And when a caregiving journey begins, particularly for someone with a long term or incurable illness, those dreams die. And you can experience a very real sense of grief and mourning, even though the person is still alive. You mourn the imagined life, the one in which things take a “natural” course and allow you to plan our your life. You mourn the loss of that person’s contributions to the family, whether it be a special recipe, or wise counsel, or them simply being the backbone of the family unit. You’re forced to let go of how things are supposed to be, and live for the moment. You constantly think about them dying. On the difficult days, you may even ask yourself if dying would be the best thing for them. You don’t want to be without them, but you can’t stand to see them living without quality of life. You mourn the loss of parts of your own life.

My grieving process didn’t begin the night my father died. It began years ago with one hospital admission that changed the course of the lives of my entire family. I grieved for my myself, being an only child without a father. Even though I’m an adult, that still is a painful thing. Maybe adult children don’t say it enough, but we still need our parents. We need their help to navigate adulthood and even to save our asses every now and then. My father was very ill but I always knew where to find him. He was a constant in my world of otherwise fluctuating circumstances. I didn’t want to ask for his help, but if I needed it, I knew where to find him at any time of the day. Now that he’s gone, I’m hyper vigilant. The world feels less safe, less worthy of my trust. Parents are our first protectors, and when they do their jobs right, you’ll find a large void in your universe when they’re gone. I regret not being able to save him. Of course I know that it’s not my fault. But blame finds it’s way into the worst of situations.

This has been a difficult month for my family. My father has a birthday in June, and then Father’s Day was last Sunday. I called my grandfather, my father’s father, and talked to him for a little while. Since my father died, I see my grandfather as the prototype. He is the snowy haired old man that my father did not age to be. I hear my father’s voice in his. They both are great story tellers and always end with a lesson or punchline. I can see my father’s roots in my grandfather’s smile. And I can see his life in mine and in both of my sons. My youngest child, just 7 months old, looks a lot like a man who he will never know in person.

Life doesn’t always turn out the way that we imagine it will, and when it doesn’t, we will be sad, and we will feel the loss deeply within our souls. Mourning isn’t something sad that happens suddenly and concludes. It’s a steep mountain to climb. A large part of being able to cope with being a caregiver is to know that mourning the imagined life is natural. You cannot move forward or make sound decisions until you deal with the fact that your dreams for that person have died. The light is that new dreams can always be constructed. All hope isn’t lost. But we have to let go in order to move into the next phase of our journey.

By D. Southern

D. Southern is a freelance writer and the creator of Caregivers’ Village

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