Dad’s Death: 10 Life Lessons (Part 6)

My Dad died on January 28th, 2017 due to complications after a fall. He would have been 85 years old this year. He and my Mom would have also celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. This is the sixth in a series of articles written about his final weeks.

Article 6, Dad’s Death – 10 Life Lessons:
Article 5, Dad’s Death – The Aftermath:
Article 4, Dad’s Final Days:
Article 3, Dad’s End of Life Dreams and Visions:
Article 2, Dad’s Recovery:
Article 1, Dad’s Fall and Surgery:


Now that it has been almost 5 months since Dad’s death I reflect back on the life lessons such an experience brings to someone’s life. To be honest, this was the first time I had really experienced death. My previous interactions had only been on the periphery. On the receiving end of a phone call. Or in the dark of night after I had seen someone for the last time.

But this time, it was up close and personal. From the day my Dad fell, through his surgery, on the roller coaster that was his recovery, to the moment he took his last breath. It knocks the wind out of you. Like they say, you don’t understand unless you have been there. I have such a deeper appreciation for anyone who has been through or is going through such an ordeal. Suffice it to say, your life is forever changed.


So what would I tell someone who hasn’t been on this journey yet?  I could easily say avoid it or run for the hills if you see it heading your way, but that wouldn’t be practical. It hit our family one sunny day when we least expected it. Once it hit, there was no where to run. We were thrown smack dab in the middle whether we wanted to be there or not.

Instead I ask you to accept death as a part of life. Accept that you have to face it and can’t avoid it. Accept if you prepare in advance you have a better chance of  moving through it in one piece. It won’t be pain free, but by planning there certainly may be less pain. If you haven’t gotten there yet, here are some of the life lessons I learned and wanted to share:

Talk about death – This is the most important item on the list.  Talk about death with your family. Their death. Your death. Don’t avoid it. Death is a part of life. It’s normal, natural and inevitable someone you love will die. It’s normal, natural and inevitable you will die.  Why send everyone into a tailspin after you die by not talking about it beforehand? Don’t approach it for the first time while someone is dying or after their death. The grief fog rolls in putting you in a parallel universe. You have no idea what hour or day it is. You have no comprehension of what anyone is saying to you.  Why would you want to have important conversations during this time?  Make it a family topic. Article: Having Conversations About End Of Life Issues

Ask tough questions – Although my Dad had an Advance Health Care Directive, we had never really asked him what it meant to him. The end of life medical techniques in an Advance Health Care Directive usually include: use of dialysis and breathing machines; resuscitation if you stop breathing or if your heart stops; feeding tubes and organ or tissue donation after you die. Since my parent’s trust was written in 1992 and amended in 2005, the laws have changed.  My own Advance Health Care Directive, written in 2013, is much more specific about these end of life medical choices. When it came time to make decisions for my Dad, his Advance Health Care Directive indicated he did not want to be an organ donor but was really not specific on the other topics.  As a result my family had to discuss what we thought Dad wanted (not what we knew he wanted).  Fortunately, my Mom, Sister and I were all on the same page.  If we had not been not been on the same page, my Dad may still be “lingering” in some acute care Hospital while we tried to figure it out.  Ask the tough questions ahead of time so you are not trying to figure it out during such a stressful and emotional time. Article: Advance Directive – Death With Dignity

Plan ahead – Don’t assume everyone knows what you want if its never been talked about. Prolong life or don’t prolong it? Die in hospital or at home? Burial or cremation? Open or closed casket? Church funeral or Memorial service at the Mortuary? Religious or party atmosphere? My Sister and I were lucky my parents had already pre-paid for most of their arrangements. This made it so much easier for us to make the remaining decisions.  If you don’t have the resources to pre-pay, at least write it all down. This is better than someone trying to guess or having family members fight about it. Article: Don’t Let Fear Stop You From End-of-Life Planning

Get paperwork in order – Make sure there is a Will or Living Trust, Advance Heath Care Directive and Power of Attorney.  If there isn’t one and/or it isn’t affordable to hire an Attorney, at least go to somewhere like Staples and buy the necessary forms. Fill out the forms and have them notarized.  Better yet, Legal Zoom is also a great resource. There is no excuse to let anyone you know (or yourself) die without these three documents.  It’s also important to know where any important files are kept or at least have a list of everything.  My Dad had files and lists but they were hard to decipher. This contributed to the anxiety we experienced after his death. Article: 8 Smart Estate Planning Steps to Die the Right Way

Speak up with Doctors – I grew to learn during my Dad’s hospitalization that Doctors are not often very clear. On several occasions when I felt like they were dancing around  subjects I asked, “Do you think my Dad is in congestive heart failure?” or “Do you think my Dad is dying?”  This directness seemed to throw off some of the Doctors. I wanted them to know honesty was the best policy. Towards the end when no one seemed to have answers, I asked for a Social Worker so my Dad’s case could be reviewed. We wanted a better idea of what was going on and our options. Things just didn’t seem “right.” So I went with my “gut” and contacted the Charge Nurse who got in touch with a Social Worker.  Dad’s case was reviewed and a Palliative Care Team took over.  Best decision we made. Who knows how long my Dad would have been in “no man’s land” if I hadn’t asked for help. I am glad I listened to my gut.  Article: Facing Mortality – How To Talk To Your Doctor

Life after death – Over the years, especially after two of my loved ones died by suicide I really understood there is life after death. I knew this because I received messages and signs from them. However until my experience with my Dad, I had never seen anyone seem to be in “this world and the next” at the same. The story he told me about his “visit” left me in awe.  My belief in the next life was strengthened by this encounter. This was the most amazing life lesson. Article: End-of-Life Dreams and Visions


Understand everyone grieves differently  One of the most misunderstood concepts about grief is that we all grieve the same way. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Grief is a unique and individual experience. How someone grieves, or more importantly how they choose to grieve, depends on many factors: The type of relationship they have or did not have with their loss, and the types and intensity of emotions that may or may not be involved. In other words, the intensity of how someone grieves directly correlates to the uniqueness of their relationship. This is why no two people will react the same way to the same loss. For example, my sister and I have very different relationships with our parents. Because of these differences, we will react in our own distinct way to their deaths. How we grieve will also be dependent on whether we decide to face it or not. We could choose to plunge into it head on. We could choose to avoid it. Once we make that decision, each of us will grieve in our own individual and unique way.

Be gentle with yourself – Too many times, we put our own self-care on hold because we are facing grief. If you are physically, emotionally, or spiritually drained you put yourself at risk of getting sick or being in an accident. If you are physically healthy, it makes it easier to deal with your emotions. This is why it is important to try to take care of you as much as possible. Be gentle with yourself during this time. Practice self-care.

Paperwork is inevitable – No matter how well anyone prepares for death, paperwork (and lots of it) will hit you like a tsunami. For the paperwork you can control, make sure there is easy access to legal, financial and healthcare files and forms at home. For the paperwork you can’t control, know ahead of time that insurance companies, lawyers and financial institutions take great pride (it seems) in the number of ways they will ask you for the same thing. There is never just one form to complete (except for the VA which still amazes me).  Just getting my Dad’s medical records from the Hospital and Fire Department took six tries. Be prepared for this to happen. Take it slowly and if possible, have someone who can help you to keep track of everything.

Be patient – Grief is not on a timeline. Be patient with grief and the paperwork reality that follows. Don’t push to be finished or become anxious when it isn’t. The entire journey takes “as long as it takes.” Accept this fact and you are ahead of the game.


In this Ted Talk, Judy MacDonald Johnston shares 5 practices for planning for a good end of life.


Sending you love, comfort and peace!