My Grief Journey: What I learned after Losing My Dad to Cancer

My Dad

I just finished watching the 31-second iPhone video I took of our family singing happy birthday to my Dad.  In the video, my Dad sits behind his ice cream cake, adorned with a seven-and-one candle, signifying his 71st birthday.  He’s half smiling and wearing the new gray cardigan sweater my sister gifted him.  

Just forty-one days after I took that video, my Dad took his final breath at home. As I sit here and type this, tears stream down my face,  clouding my vision almost entirely.  A painful lump sits lodged in my throat, and it feels hard to breathe. 

Pink Iris Flower
Iris: My Dad’s favorite flower.

My Dad died after a fifteen month heroic battle against stage IV esophageal cancer.  It was hell. I can sum up the last year and a half of my life in one word:  traumatic.  Watching someone you love slowly die from a horrible disease and not being able to do anything about it is gut wrenching. It’s against our nature as humans. We want to fix it. And we can’t.

Losing my Dad to cancer has completely changed me. Grief is a journey I’m still traveling.  I wanted to share what I’m learning from this experience, and hopefully, help someone else who might be on this journey, too. 

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You start grieving long before the person dies.  

Fifteen months ago, my Dad underwent a routine endoscopy to investigate minor health issues.  By that point, he had lost a good amount of weight, which he chalked up to diet and exercise.  But we weren’t really worried. 

My Dad was a pretty healthy guy. He never smoked, and he wasn’t really a drinker. He was an avid outdoorsman and incredibly smart. He kept himself active, both physically and mentally.

I can still hear his voice on that phone call like it was yesterday—stage IV esophageal cancer with inoperable tumors.  I’m really in trouble, Karen, he said.  Who knew? Heartburn can cause cancer.  I was completely floored.

That’s when I started grieving.  My world crumpled into a little ball under my feet.  I felt sad, angry and out of control. Like he was slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t stop it.  This type of grief is called anticipatory grief.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have hope for the person, but it is a way of preparing yourself for change.  Allow yourself the space to feel these early feelings.  

Be a Listening Post.

Initially, I felt I should constantly keep my Dad’s mind off the giant elephant in the room.  I did my best to talk about anything and everything else and wipe tears away when he wasn’t looking.  It was too painful to acknowledge what was happening.  

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What I didn’t realize was it helped my Dad to talk about it.  He needed to voice his feelings, and I needed to listen.  It was therapeutic for him and therapeutic for me.  Those talks led to many deep conversations with him that I’m forever grateful for.  It’s a horrible situation, and it’s ok to admit that.  Follow their lead. Don’t offer empty reassurances. Be a listening post.  Be supportive. Be empathetic.

Say the important things you want to say often and early on.

When someone is terminally ill, you never know how much time you have with that person.  You’ll look back on the mediocre days and realize those were the good days. 

I knew I wanted to finish one final wood project with my Dad, and I’m so happy we made the time to do this together.

As my Dad got sicker and weaker, he just wanted to sleep. And when he was awake, he wasn’t feeling good.  Our conversations became shorter, and the space between them became longer.  

Make time early on to say what you need to say while they’re still around.  Visit them often.  Hold their hand.  Laugh with them.  Cherish memories.  Say I love you. Say thank you.  Be present.  You won’t regret it.  

You might have to tell them it’s ok to let go.

Sometimes our loved ones hang on because they are worried about us.  They might suffer through pain longer than they should.  They might continue to fight because they don’t want us to think they are giving up.  And we don’t want to give up on them, either.  

My Dad fought hard to the end. He endured so many treatments. He never wanted hospice, and we respected that. Despite doctors telling us there was no cure, we never took away his hope.  And that’s so important to do for your loved one.

When I came to visit, before I even had the chance to say hi, he would grab my hand with tears in his eyes and say: “take care of your mom.”

I did my best to reassure him that we would be ok.  That mom would be ok and that we would always take care of each other. I think he needed to hear it.  It’s the hardest thing to do – to let them go – but you do it because you love them and don’t want them to suffer any longer.  

You might feel numb after they die.  

When my Dad died – it felt like a piece of me died, too. Walking into my childhood home in the days before my Dad’s funeral was surreal.  His shoes were still sitting by the front door.  His favorite jacket still hanging off the coat rack he made a decade ago in the entry.  I would look at the door and think he was going to come waltzing through it at any minute. It was so strange to be there without him.

I sometimes feel like a zombie wandering through a thick fog. Grieving is incredibly taxing on the brain, and there’s no room for much else.  Don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel anything at first. It’s normal.

Your grief will attack you when you least expect it.  

I remember breaking down in the grocery store’s dairy section of all places.  I saw an old man slowly wheeling his cart full of Diet Coke and TV dinners to the refrigerator to grab milk.  Why did I cry? Because I realized at that very moment my Dad was never going to be an old man. It felt unfair.  And so so sad.  

And then there was the time I randomly lost it after dropping my daughter off at gymnastics practice.  I had to pull over because the sobbing became a driving hazard. It was a Tuesday.  

I like to call these odd moments of uncontrollable sadness: “grief attacks.”  They seem to come out of nowhere, and they wallop you.  Face red – out of breath – eyes swollen – mascara running-type of walloping.  

Of course, I still get sad at the expected moments. I still hear my voice quiver when I talk to friends about how I’m doing.  And I still feel my eyes fill with tears when something reminds me of my Dad.

You’re not going insane. You’re grieving.  Acknowledge your grief. Don’t try to hold it in or be strong. You can’t ignore it and make it go away. Release it. Even if you’re in the grocery store.

There’s no right or wrong way to feel; feelings just are.

There are those infamous five stages of grief; I’m sure you’ve heard of them.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, lastly, acceptance.  What some people don’t know, though, is that these stages came about after a lengthy study on the dying, not the living who are left dealing with the loss.  

As humans, it’s natural for us to want to package up our grief in a little neat order.  I remember having these internal conversations: ok, I feel depressed.  I must be in the depression stage. 

But it doesn’t work that way.  You will feel all these feelings more than once, in random order, or not at all – and it’s all perfectly ok.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Feelings just are.  Be gentle with yourself.  

Your relationship with them isn’t over; it’s just changed.  

Thinking that death is the end – a closed book – is incredibly painful.  But what if we turn it around and think we are just in another chapter?  The relationship is still here – it’s just different.  You still love this person and the love doesn’t end.  

Someone told me at my Dad’s funeral, “Your Dad will be around you now more than ever before.”  And I found so much comfort in that statement.  

Yellow Butterfly

I still talk to my Dad every day.  Sometimes I make jokes with him.  And sometimes I cry and tell him how much I miss him.  No matter what your beliefs are, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, you can still involve that person in your life in some way.  It’s not over. It’s just changed.

People will say the wrong things to you. 

Death is such a taboo topic in our society.  Most of us don’t know how to respond to it, despite the fact that we will all experience it at some point. People WILL say the wrong things to you. And it’s ok.

Remember that most people mean well, even if it doesn’t come out that way.  Don’t be afraid to communicate what you need and what you don’t need during your grief journey.  

Here are some helpful things and some not-so-helpful things to say someone who is grieving.

  • Helpful:  I’m so sorry for your loss.  
  • Helpful:  I just dropped off dinner/takeout/groceries.  
  • Helpful:  My heart breaks for you.  
  • Helpful:  Know we are thinking of you.  
  • Helpful:  We will miss them greatly.  
  • Helpful:  Share a pleasant memory.
  • Helpful:  If you want to talk, I am here for you.  
  • Not Helpful:  It was just their time.
  • Not Helpful:  He might still be here if he went to X hospital/doctor instead.   
  • Not Helpful:  Try to stay busy.
  • Not Helpful:  Death is a part of life.   
  • Not Helpful:  So and So also has cancer and is not doing well.  
  • Not Helpful:  They wouldn’t want you to cry.
  • Not Helpful:  *nothing at all* 

Healing will happen, but there will always be a scar.

You never move on from the loss.  You learn to live with it. 

My good friend said, “Grief is like a scab.  You’ll pick at it occasionally for the rest of your life.  And sometimes, it will bleed.  Eventually, it will scab over again but it never fully heals.”  

watercolor heart

Right now, I’m taking things day by day and giving myself mental space to breathe and find a new normal without my Dad.  Here are some things that are helping me through:

  • Journaling.
  • Talking to my mom and planning visits with her. Hearing her voice helps me stay present.
  • Taking long walks (the act of putting one foot in front of the other feels like progress). I feel incredibly connected to my Dad when I’m outside, in nature and around birds and animals. I feel his presence there, like he’s walking right beside me. My Dad was an avid nature lover through and through. It’s been very therapeutic for me.
  • Gardening. The morning my Dad died, I went out to our garden and a beautiful yellow butterfly emerged from the plants. It flew around me for a while and then fluttered off. It was close enough for me to really notice it’s presence. These little moments bring me so much joy.
  • Hanging with good friends who make you laugh and let you ugly cry.
  • Photography. Any hobby that brings you joy is especially healing right now.
  • Taking a long, hot bath.
  • Reading my favorite books. Although I haven’t had much energy for blogging – I’m still reading my favorite decorating books and magazines behind the scenes. I’ll be back sooner rather than later.
  • Cleaning and organizing. I know I’m not the only one on this planet who finds joy in cleaning.
  • Finding ways to honor my Dad. While I would love to do a wood project – it’s still too painful. So, I’m focusing on other things right now until I find the strength to pick up the saw again. I have a bunch of photos of him that I will frame. I want to plant a tree in his honor. I might even paint the wooden bluebird box he made me several months before he died.

Grieving forces you to view life through a different lens.  It puts everything into perspective, and you take nothing for granted.  Losing my Dad made me want to be a better person and live more like he did.  

If you are on a grief journey, allow yourself the time and the space you need to grieve in your own way, however that might be for you. Don’t be afraid to call a grief counselor either. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need.


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