Recovering from the Loss of a Parentby Katherine Fair Donnelly
The death of a parent is one of the most difficult times in a person's life. This book offers hope and understanding in coping with the loss. Through intimate discussions with sons and daughters who've lost a parent, Donnelly explores the many emotions that arise after a parent dies.
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Recovering from the Loss of a Parent
By Katherine Fair Donnelly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Katherine Fair Donnelly
All rights reserved.
A Parent Dies
Each of the sons and daughters who appear in this chapter has experienced the anguish of losing a beloved mother or father. As we move on in the book, we will read more about the ways they coped with their grief. But first, the bereaved set the scene and tell us what happened to change their lives so dramatically.
Twenty-one-year-old Phil Musmacker was living 2,000 miles from his mother when he learned of her death. Not only was he a long way from home, but he had just recently been released by the police after having been held for possession of a gun. Phil's troubles with the law began when his girlfriend was harassed by two thugs who were attempting to break into the apartment Phil shared with her. Soon after, he purchased a gun for their protection — a precaution not uncommon in Texas towns.
Because Phil had been brutally treated by the arresting officers, all charges against him were dropped. Following his release, Phil was anxious to return home to see his mother, but a lack of money made this impossible. He was working to earn the transportation fare when a long-distance phone call announced his mother's death. The trauma of not having been at her bedside was a forerunner of intense guilt feelings and remorse. It was years before Phil was able to face up to his grief.
Two years prior to his mother's death, Phil had run away from his hometown, from an overwhelming hospital scene, and from a mother who, wracked with cancer, had dwindled from 235 to 105 pounds. At his mother's pleading, Phil had been giving her injections of the painkiller Demerol in ever-increasing amounts and was tormented that he might overdose and kill her. Added to this was anger with his father, brothers, and sisters who were of little help or comfort. The emotional burden had at last become unbearable and Phil had escaped to Texas with his girlfriend.
In the above story, a young man is tortured by guilt for what he sees as neglect, and by anger at events and at those who could have helped but had failed, he felt, to do so. The following anecdote concerns a young woman whose sense of loss at the death of her father is so overwhelming that she thinks it will be with her for the remainder of her life.
But there is hope for both these people, for hope never dies. Different as their stories are, they both tell of deep suffering, as indeed do all the stories that follow.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, Beth Landau was visiting a friend and so was not at home to receive her mother's urgent phone call. Mrs. Landau had tragic news for her daughter — the girl's father, age sixty-four, had died of a heart attack while playing tennis. The grief-stricken mother finally succeeded in reaching family friends who said they expected to see Beth that evening. "Don't tell her about her father's death," urged Mrs. Landau. "It will be better if she learns about it when she comes here."
While Mrs. Landau was still on the telephone, Beth arrived at the friends' home and took the call. She heard her mother's strained voice saying, "Daddy's not well, Beth. Please come home." The young woman's friends drove her to the Landau home. Although everyone in the car, except Beth, knew of Mr. Landau's death, they all remained silent. When Beth entered the house, she wondered at the presence of a number of her parents' friends but was totally unprepared for her mother's news. In an upstairs bedroom, Beth learned from her mother that her father was dead.
"My knees turned to water," Beth recalls, "and I just collapsed. What followed was an awful night, for the news had come as a shock. My father had suffered a heart attack many years before, but recently he had been in very good shape. Now he was dead and it seemed that a part of me was missing — a feeling that is still with me. I've had a very rough time coping with his death, with the fact that I will never see him again, and with the change it has brought about in all of our lives."
Marjorie and Ellen Martin, twin sisters, were thirty-one years old at the time of their father's death, their mother having died when the girls were eighteen. Robert Martin had long been in poor health and had alternated between a stationary home respirator and a portable machine that he used on his rare trips to the doctor. Mr. Martin suffered from severe emphysema, made worse by a lung condition that permitted him to use only one quarter of his breathing capacity. After his wife's death, Marjorie and Ellen took care of their father's needs.
One evening Ellen became ill and Marjorie accompanied her to the doctor. "We were gone about two hours," Marjorie recounts. "While we were away, robbers broke into the apartment and were apparently angered that there was so little worth stealing. Besides destroying the whole place, they pulled the plug out of our father's respirator. It was coldly and deliberately done, as the plug was high and not easy to reach. It was quite obvious that it had been intentionally unplugged. Those people murdered our father when they pulled that plug."
Mr. Martin was unable to call for help once the respirator had been disconnected, for his lungs rapidly filled with fluid. He became lightheaded and collapsed before he could reach the telephone.
When Marjorie and her sister returned and found their father almost unconscious, they quickly called for an ambulance. Mr. Martin was rushed to a hospital, where he died shortly thereafter. As their father was in no condition to describe the robbers, the police had little to help them solve the crime. To this date, the perpetrators have not been apprehended.
Above we have read how two sisters suffered from the shock of finding their father gasping for breath and dying. In the next story, we learn how a son suffered from the trauma of identifying his father's body. Each of these bereaved children — the two daughters and the son — is still haunted by horrible memories of a beloved father's death.
Salvatore Vento was lying on a slab in the morgue when his twenty-seven-year-old son, Paul, was called in to identify him. "That was a nightmare," Paul remembers. "I wouldn't go through such an experience again for anything. They tell you they are going to show the body through a window and that you'll see only the face — nothing more. That's not true. They bring you right inside, right to where the slabs are, and you identify the corpse. None of the bodies are very pretty. They don't fix them up the way an undertaker does, and they don't prepare you for what you're going to see. The bodies are covered with a butcher's paper — like the paper used for wrapping meat in a butcher shop — not with a cloth of any kind. It was horrible. My father's face was full of blood. It's something that gave me nightmares, and I still see him. In fact, maybe my son and I are crazy, but we feel that somebody is walking around the house, all these years later. We hear noises. We see shadows going by. We think this is my father walking around and that he is looking over our shoulder."
Paul was at home when he learned of his father's death. "He had been found on the street. The police came to our house and told us that he was dead and that his body was at Bellevue Morgue. They said he had died of a fatty liver and that the pancreas had burst. Although my father had been in the hospital several times over the years, he had recently been in very good spirits. He was only fifty-three. So when we were first notified and I got in touch with our relatives, my uncles said, 'It's probably a mistake, it's not your father.' My wife also felt that way. But I thought to myself, 'Very seldom does the police department make a mistake like that.' So I ran up to my mother's to take care of her."
While Paul Vento accepted the news of his father's death when he received the phone call advising him of the tragedy, this isn't always the case with bereaved children. In the next two accounts, we will learn about the reactions of daughters who refused to believe the callers.
When the doctor phoned Carol Richardson at work to tell her that her mother had died, the young woman didn't believe it and just went on working. The doctor sensed that the shock was so great that his news had not sunk in. He made a second call, but this time he asked for Carol's boss. "I was called inside," Carol said, "and they asked me if I understood what had happened. 'What happened? Nothing happened.' I was very nonchalant and uncomprehending. It took a while for me to understand and absorb that something had happened and that my mother had really died."
Carol tells about the effect on her: "My mother's death was totally devastating. Although she had cancer of the colon, she had not been sick very long. We learned in October that she had cancer and by December she was dead. My mother was fifty-one at the time and I was twenty-one. I certainly was not ready to lose my mother."
Carol explains that while it is very difficult to lose a parent, one never wants to see a person suffering with cancer, or to continue in that suffering. "You more or less look forward to her death to take her out of her misery, even though it's very hard for you. I always feel it would have been more difficult to see my mother linger on with the disease."
After her mother died, Carol continued living with her father and was with him until his death seven years later. While her mother's illness lasted three months, her father's illnesses went on for years. "He was in and out of hospitals. He had cancer of the prostate and diabetes, and there were other complications.
"My father felt that he wasn't useful anymore. I tried to tell him this was not so, but he just wanted to die and be with his wife. That's all he kept saying toward the end. When my father passed away, he had completely given up. It was a very draining experience to visit him and be told, 'I don't want to be here.' It was especially difficult for me at the time of his death because I had just come out of the hospital myself, after minor surgery. So physically and mentally, his illness was a terrible strain. Then after he had died, I realized that I was nobody's baby anymore. I was my own baby."
When Alexander McAllister died in May 1984, his daughter Margaret was twenty-two. She recalls the weeks and months prior to his death: "In the last year of my father's life, I watched him deteriorate steadily until he became another person. He was no longer able to do anything. He couldn't even stand at the sink to shave. He couldn't wash his own back or take a shower, for the steam would make his heart palpitate too much. He couldn't walk more than a block without taking twenty minutes to rest. In the last few months, he walked with a cane. He hated what he had become, and I am convinced he wanted out of that life. My mother and I told him, 'This time you're going into the hospital and you're going to get better. When you come out, everything will be fine.' But I think he knew we were just hoping, because he cried that morning. He wasn't afraid of many things, but I think he was afraid of hospitals, and he cried because he didn't want to cause problems for anyone. The night before, he had said to my mother, 'Jeannie, I don't feel well.' So we were both very concerned. The next day, my mother was unable to get off from work, so I took my father to the hospital.
"Because the doctor who had been taking care of my father had moved away, Dad changed doctors. To make things worse, my father's roommate in the hospital didn't like noise, especially the sounds coming from the hall, and he had gotten up and closed the door, which created a panic situation for my father. In his last few months, my father was terrified of having his air supply cut off. Later, the nurse told us he had gotten up and tried to open the door, but it was stuck. 'He began to pull it, working himself up into a state,' she said. The hospital called to advise us that although they had planned to release him, they were not going to let him go because his blood pressure had soared. In addition, due to the treatment that had been given him for edema, he had lost water so rapidly that his metabolism was out of control. As a result, the doctors said they wanted to keep him in the hospital one more day.
"Before I left my father, I had helped him sit up in the bed to a comfortable position. He had asked for soda, which I got, as well as some books. He seemed fine. When my mother came, we went out to have some lunch. It had been a long day for her. When we returned to the hospital, the nurses told us that there was nothing more we could do. My father was very sleepy, so we went home. Later in the day, my mother tried to call his room but got no answer. That wasn't unusual, though. Whenever he felt better, he liked to wander the hall because he felt caged up in his room. But instinct told my mother this was not the case now. 'Something is wrong,' she said. With that, she called the switchboard but was transferred to someone else, and then to still another person. A little voice inside of me started to scream.
"I heard my mother say, 'You're not trying to tell me my husband died, are you?' Then I heard her cry out. I ran to the phone and a spokesman for the hospital was on the other end. I said to him, 'What happened? My father was fine when we left.' He told me my father had a heart attack and was just too weak to survive. I went through the gamut of emotions at that point. First, I was enraged that we were told this news on the phone. It was so cold. I also felt the hospital must have been remiss and had made a mistake. It wasn't my father who had died, and they were calling the wrong family."
While the daughters in the above stories were unable to accept the news of their parent's death, another daughter had a premonition that something was amiss with her father. Peggy Griffiths was on a train on her way home from college for the Labor Day weekend. While she was riding between Philadelphia and Newark, she had a strong feeling that something was terribly wrong with her father. "I was very apprehensive and couldn't understand what I was feeling while on the train. But when I got home, I understood well enough. My mother told me that my father had been getting up to get dressed for breakfast when suddenly he sat back on the bed and collapsed. He died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage." It was instantaneous and totally unexpected. When Peggy entered the apartment, her father's body was still in the bedroom. "My mother was waiting for the doctor to come," she says when speaking of that time. "Not realizing that my father was dead, she had called the doorman of the building to send for medical help. A doctor who lived in a neighboring apartment walked in shortly after I arrived. He went into the bedroom, examined my father, and told us he was dead. I have always been grateful that I was with my mother at that moment."
Fifteen years later, on her eightieth birthday, Peggy's mother fell and broke her hip. "The doctor explained to me that her bones were brittle and that this had caused her fall. Even though I was with her at the time, I wasn't able to catch her and break her fall." That night, Peggy brought her mother to the hospital, where she was operated on two days later. Over the next few weeks, Mrs. Griffiths made good progress and was even learning to walk again.
"It was such a great feeling to see my mother walking and moving," says Peggy, "and I was looking forward to bringing her home. But then bed pneumonia set in. That last week was a tough one with the doctors doing everything they could to save her life, but because of her age, my mother didn't respond to the antibiotics, and she died on February 4th. I knew that the Good Lord was calling her home, and she knew it, too. While I understood and accepted it, I still was in a state of shock. No matter how old your parent is, you are not prepared for that loss, and my grief was great."
The loss of a parent does not always evoke much sympathy but, as many sons and daughters attest, it can be extremely traumatic. One such son was John Donnelly, whose mother tried to shield her twenty-five-year-old son from the pain of witnessing her death from cancer. She was adamant in her wishes that his visits be limited, and the hospital staff went along with her. She insisted that her son be permitted to see her only after her blood transfusions, for it was then she looked her best. When she was propped up in bed, she presented a hopeful picture to John each time he visited her. "My mother is looking better," he would think.
But on December 6th, John decided to visit his mother unannounced. "I went to her regular spot in the hospital, but she wasn't there. When I asked where she was, the nurse, without thinking, said, 'Oh, she's out on the porch.' And there I went, expecting to see my mother sitting up in a chair, but what I saw was unbelievable. She was going into her pre-death period and I began to scream. Two nurses and a doctor I didn't know came running and they gave me smelling salts. They reprimanded me, saying, 'She can hear you. How can you do this?' 'But,' I moaned, 'I didn't know, I didn't know.' Then they asked, 'Who are you?' When I told them I was her son, they said, 'Her son? Didn't anyone tell you?' But no one had told me. For the first time I had seen her before she had been given the blood and when she wasn't propped up."
Excerpted from Recovering from the Loss of a Parent by Katherine Fair Donnelly. Copyright © 2000 Katherine Fair Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Author of over nine books published in various languages, including her Recovery series, Katherine Fair Donnelly also co-wrote a “Recovering” column, which was syndicated alongside Dear Abby and Ann Landers in publications such as the Dallas Morning News. She lectured at numerous colleges and appeared on the Today Show, Sally Jessy Raphael show, and Canada AM, as well in People magazine and The Wall Street Journal for her extensive grief work. Donnelly died in 2014.
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