I was asked several months ago to write an article for The Good Man Project (www.goodmanproject.com) on one of my most transformative experiences as a man. After spending some time thinking about the opportunity, I decided to write about what I’m going through right now. Below you’ll find the article that was recently published. It’s a meditation on how my father’s cancer diagnosis moved us to a deep and meaningful place in our relationship.
When a Parent Dies
by Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D.
It wasn’t until my father was diagnosed with lymphoma and given six months to live, that we began to have real conversations. Prior to that, our exchanges focused on the weather and my assuring him I was scaling up the ladder of success. “How’s your practice?” he’d ask after updating me on the temperature in rural Pennsylvania. His question, of course, was code for “how much money are you making?” Nothing, it seemed, pleased him more than knowing I was seizing the spoils the American dream.
His diagnosis of death, however, changed the tenor of our conversations. Instead of focusing on the surfaces of life, our conversations became more intimate. “There was an amazing Oriole (bird) sitting on the balcony this morning.” He’d report, adding thoughtfully, “huge with the most incredible orange belly. I was feeling sorry for myself but that darn bird brightened up my day.” Most alarming, however, were his admissions of uncertainty and lack of control about the future, “I’m concerned about how your mother will get on after I die. To be honest, I thought she’d go before me.”
At first, these conversations made me uncomfortable. For over three decades, I’d settled into the sterilized nature of my father’s and my exchanges. They felt safe in their predictability. As long as we operated on the surface of facts (“it’s 63 and raining”) we didn’t have to wander into the messiness of our emotions. What upset me most, however, was the chaos of my father’s dying process and my inability to control his transition. Somehow, I expected death to be neat and tidy when life itself is messy, unfair and uncertain. It isn’t.
Surprisingly, it was I, not he who was afraid of the messiness. While he conveyed strength, resolve, and serenity, I left our calls feeling untethered, vulnerable and confused. It was if I was wondering through a chaotic marketplace in China desperate for nourishment, but unable to properly communicate my needs.
What made my discomfort more troubling was the fact that I’m a professionally trained psychotherapist. Armed with a Ph.D., years of training and clinical work, I’m supposed to be an expert in the art and science of emotions and the uncertainty of life. Over the years I’ve worked with many sons and daughters who were losing or who had lost a parent. In this work, no truth proved too much to handle, no emotional pain too great to hold, and no outcome too horrific to walk through.
This, however, was different. No longer was I the expert standing empathetically in the wings. Now I was center stage, feeling the searing spotlights of my emotions.
Fortunately, my training and the incredible inspiration I continuously get from my patients told me I needed to do something different. Instead of shutting myself down to my father’s emotional exchanges, I needed to be more open to them and evolve into a new way of being in my family, in myself and in the universe. To do this I found myself taking the following five steps that I observed worked so graciously with my patients who were dealing with the issues I was now facing. I’ve outlined these steps below:
1. Accept death as a dynamic shift rather than a permanent ending: Under stress, humans automatically resort to black and white thinking. As this relates to the phenomenon of death we think in terms of either here or not here. There is, however, another reality that’s a more accurate representation of what happens when a loved one dies. True, they are no longer with us physically, but emotionally they remain deeply embedded in our psyche. Allow this transition to occur.
2. Feel the fullness of your emotions: Instead of pushing your sadness away, embrace it. Tears enable us to absorb the phenomenon of death in a way that adds to its richness and honors your relationship with the loved one. Let them flow.
3. Cultivate peace: Let go of unrealistic expectations of what parent and child relationships should be. In all parent-child relationships, there is disappointment and pain. Neither parents nor children are ever to fully live up to the other’s hopes and dreams. Accept this truth.
4. Be as fully present as possible, but know your limits: No parent-child relationship is the same. Know what works best in your unique relationship. Don’t make up for lost time by smothering your parent at the end. Be present when you can, but recognize everyone has emotional and physical restrictions on the time they can spend together. Provide pauses.
5. Be open to the unseen and unknown: The human mind and body are limited by time and space. We’re not physically capable of knowing the entirety of our humanness and the universe that surrounds us. Consider the infinite possibilities that exist on the non-physical, yet to be discovered plane. Locate your relationship with your dying parent in them.
I’ve had great success in incorporating these steps into my evolving relationship with my father’s death. Yes, there are moments when I’m paralyzed by fear, rattled by doubt and lay awake at night mourning what I think could and should have been our relationship, but I get through them with purpose and direction. In my work, I’ve found peace, resolution and grace in the cultivation of the new relational possibilities in the experience. My hope is you or a loved one who is also going through one of life’s inevitabilities can embrace these as its defining features as well.