What we can all learn from my Dad's Death


My father died fifteen years ago today. It was unexpected and earth shattering.

My father and I had just gotten back from a Christmas trip to Barcelona, Spain

Dad was a great traveler. As a young man in the Air Force, he traveled relentlessly from his base in Ramstein, Germany. As a married man, he and my mother traveled frequently around the world. As a father, he took me to Europe, the Caribbean and around the United States. Spain was the last country on Dad's bucket list. For Christmas 2003, I was finally able to give him the gift of travel when I planned a Christmas vacation to Barcelona.

Dad was off that trip. His usual preternatural sense of direction wasn't there. He took too long in the bathroom. He peed with the frequency of a pregnant lady. He had to rest often as we explored the city. He was irritable and snippy rather than his usual jovial calm. He had a collection of pill bottles that he'd never had before.

I questioned the prescriptions only to have him blow it off as "yeah, my sugar was getting high so I finally went to the doctor." Diabetes ran in his family. He'd outrun it for much longer than his father and brothers, but it seemed to have finally caught up to him. I didn't push, but did have the sense to write down the doctor's name.

Worried, I called the doctor when we got back home. Dad lived in Ohio. I lived in New York. Dad's doctor told me indeed he was quite sick and she'd advised against the trip, but Dad was insistent that he wanted to visit the last European country with his only daughter. I was honored and concerned.

But I got caught up in my own life when the very next day (Friday) my then boyfriend, now husband Paul, surprised me with a trip to Quebec. I called my Dad to tell him I was heading to Canada for the weekend. I told his answering machine about the trip and that I'd call him when I got back. I'd talked to him on Monday and we only talked about once a week, so I was just living my normal life.

What I didn't know is that my Dad was at that very moment laying on his bathroom floor in and out of consciousness. My boyfriend had called earlier in the week (Tuesday) to ask him for my hand in marriage. Dad had joyfully agreed. He liked Paul. His baby girl was taken care of now.

He woke up the next day (Wednesday) and ordered me a set of knives as an engagement gift. He went to play poker Wednesday night, as was his custom. After the game, he came home and while doing his business on the toilet had a massive stroke. No one knew to be concerned until he didn't show up for his poker game on Friday.

Saturday morning his poker buddies stopped by the house. When he didn't answer the door they ultimately grew concerned enough to call the police. The police literally broke the door down, found him alive and got him to the hospital.

No one could reach me while I was in Canada in my la-la-land of getting engaged. I didn't have an international phone or data plan. If that kind of thing was even possible in 2003. I returned to many frantic messages from his poker buddies, my aunt, my uncles. I called my aunt immediately and simply asked, "Betty, is he alive?"

"Yes, but barely," my aunt said and told me the story. I flew out the next day to join him in Ohio. Dad was lucid most of the time, but badly damaged by the stroke. Surprisingly, our time together was special and tender.

Raised a stoic man, my dad didn't express emotion much. The stroke somehow lifted that veil. It was like we saw each other for who we really were in those two weeks as he healed in the hospital — me by his side every day.

I became his power of attorney. I was forced to make decisions way over my 31-year-old head: paying all his bills, collecting rents, deciding if we should drain his lung, finding a nursing home. Each decision a temporary measure in my head. Dad would be fine. He was strong. We would rehab him in the nursing home and we'd go back to our normal. Me in New York. Him living an independent life in Ohio.

Two weeks later, Super Bowl Sunday 2003 happened:

  • Morning: Paul and I had moved Dad's things into the nursing home in preparation for his move the next day.

  • Afternoon: I had sent Paul home to New York. There was nothing further he could do and he needed to work. I was clearly going to be in Ohio for a while.  

  • Evening: Oblivious to it being game day, I left Dad to make some more calls to his family while the nurses did his nightly sponge bath and bedpan change. The man still needed his dignity. When walked onto the floor, I heard an announcement for a "code blue". My heart knew it was Dad. My head was slower to respond. I can't remember if my body ran to the room, but I remember feeling like an anchor was around my neck.

I remember crying "don't leave me, Dad" as I held his feet while the nurses and doctors surrounded his body. The words formed automatically. But my heart and I dare say, my soul, felt him leaving. A calm "it's ok" trying to be heard in the background of my cries. I felt "goodbye. I love you" in my body while my rational brain continued to selfishly beg him to stay.

Dad didn't want to go to a nursing home. He didn't want to stay in his weakened body. His baby girl was taken care of. He knew it was okay to join his wife, mother, brother and longtime girlfriend on the other side. He stayed alive long enough to finish our business together then slipped away.

Super Bowl Sunday has never been the same for me. Nor has life for that matter.

I've come to learn that a major trauma often precedes a cancer diagnosis. Here's how I believe the death of my father contributed to my cancer and red flags everyone should be cautious of.

  1. Grief - I often say when losing someone you love, "it never hurts less, just less often." A whiff of Chinese food, the sound of a Nascar race, a glimpse of an elder gentleman in a page boy cap — some of the triggers that can buckle me at the knees unexpectedly in grief over my father's death.

I've buried both parents, four grandparents, two cats and most of my extended family at this point. Grief sits heavy in my heart. I let it fester for way too long. I didn't have the tools to properly release it and it got stuck. I've come to believe trapped grief can manifest into physical illness. I worked with a therapist and healers to learn to release the grief.

There's no right way for grief to come out.  If you're in a situation where grief erupts just let it rip. Cry, scream, throw a pillow. I don't care how, just get it out.

2. Suppressed emotion - my family is German. I grew up in the Midwest. Emotions aren't exactly something I learned to share freely. What does not break you makes you stronger. Grin and bear it. Stiff upper lip. All the cliches to hide one's emotions were the basis of my life. I didn't want my Dad to worry about me when my mom died when I was 12. I wanted to make him proud. I wanted to be fine for him. I learned to stuff all my emotions — anger, frustration, pain, disappointment — and put on a happy face.

All those negative emotions got trapped and also festered. Eventually contributing to the physical manifestation of disease. So in addition to grief, we must find a healthy way to release every emotion. Join a gym, journal, meditate. Do whatever you need to do to let the emotion out rather than pretend it's not there.

I needed a trained therapist for this one. At first I worked on making sure I didn't suppress any more emotions than were already there. I started to call my husband and son out when they were being a-holes. In the beginning, I yelled more. Eventually it became constructive when I could identify what I was feeling rather than just explode with two weeks worth of repressed feelings that all came spewing out in one tirade.

A wise boss once told me that "no matter if it's your nose, your toes  or your mouth, the emotions will come out, so you might as well express them." Don't pretend you're fine, if you're not. Get it out.

3. Guilt - was I a good daughter? Could I have done more when he was sick? Should I have seen his illness coming? Should I have done more to ease his stay in the hospital? Why was I such a pissy teenager when my Dad was clearly working so hard? I played a lifetime of could of's, should of's, would of's in my head. Over and over.

When I got sick I saw that guilt wasn't hurting anyone but myself. I couldn't change anything that had happened in the past. Beating myself up didn't make the situation better, it only hurt me further.

This one I journaled out. One by one I wrote all the guilt I felt. I accepted that I had done the best with the information I had at the time.

Another major tool was praying for forgiveness. I asked my father for forgiveness. Just as important, I prayed for guidance to forgive myself. We have to forgive ourselves. Seriously, we all have a lot of stuff buried in there that we need to forgive.

To remember my dad, Louie B. Gregg, tonight, I'll take my family out for Chinese food because he loved it. I'm going to hang one of his favorite paintings in my new home. I'm going to pull out some funny pictures my son has never seen of his grandfather and tell some new stories.

In honor of Blake's grandfather, I'd be relieved if you can think of one thing you need to release. Do you have any grief, emotion or guilt buried that may be festering? Lou had a great life. He knew when it was time to go. He'd want the same for me and for all of us.

In love, light, release and forgiveness,