Parenting and Empathic Fathers, Relationships

A Lesson in Loss

“Please keep the socks on!” She takes them off. “Honey, it’s cold, keep them on!!” She takes them off and grins. “Look, I really think you should wear those socks. Come on!” (my voice gets louder and more impatient). She dances with the socks through the living room, throws them in the air and giggles “no socks, no socks, no socks”. That’s my two-year-old. At the same time my six-year-old is creating a big mess on the kitchen table when he spreads playdough literally everywhere, including into the food I’ve just prepared. My nine-year-old sits on the sofa and calls me for the twentieth time to read him his Asterix-comic. Paralysed I just stand there, watching the scenery. I feel like a bystander at a party, where everyone is having fun but me. Tears fill my eyes. I could scream. Or cry. Or just run away. Or maybe all three.

Normally, I would say that I’m a quite balanced, patient and easy-going dad and man. I love being a father and I’ve been supporting other fathers and men for more than 12 years. I did a lot of research, published a book on fatherhood and my wife and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on childhood, schooling, parenting and life. All sorted then?

Bang! The truth can sometimes feel so much harder and more painful than we think. It’s like looking into the mirror after a sleepless night, expecting to still look awesome. This year reality struck and I was reminded how much I still need to do, how much my inner child still needs attention, and how easy it seems to leave past wounds unattended and push problems aside when you live a busy life, trying to meet everybody else´s needs, especially my kids.

MEETING RESPONSIBILITY

At the beginning of last year, my father died. It wasn’t unexpected as he suffered from a tumour in his throat. No operation, no therapy could help. While he was getting treatment he nearly passed away twice. Both times I immediately took the plane to Berlin to see him, laden with anxiety and fear. Each time I wasn’t sure whether I would be too late. Sitting next to his hospital bed – or later with him, in his home – was painful. He couldn’t talk and I tried my best to interpret and meet his physical and emotional needs. I felt responsible for him. Caring for his physical needs, sharing these intimate moments with my dad, who I did not feel close to for so many years, felt strange at first, but then, to my surprise, quickly became natural. I cooked nourishing food for my mother and held her when she cried. Even though my childhood was nowhere near perfect, it felt like I was able to give a little bit of nurturing back and my parents both very much appreciated my practical as well as emotional support.

THE LAST TIME

The last time I saw my dad was three weeks before he died. When we met, I somehow knew this was going to be the last time. Forever. The relationship between him and me wasn’t always the best. In our family we didn’t talk much about feelings and emotions in general. My parents had certain expectations of life and my siblings and I. However, the problem was me; I didn’t comply. I had my own ideas, I didn’t follow their hopes and dreams for me. Instead I made plans of my own. Following my dreams, my aspirations, my hopes. So, I didn’t finish university, didn’t apply for that “safe” 9 to 5 job and didn’t opt for a mortgage that would have enslaved me for the next twenty or so years.

My dad wasn’t present when I made important choices in my life, like leaving Germany. Often silence was his disapproval. He only voiced his concerns a few times, in regards to our parenting and our children’s education. In his world there was little space for alternative routes.

The very last meeting with my dad wasn’t easy. We only had one hour. One hour where his medication didn’t fog his mind, one hour where I could talk to him about us. He wasn’t able to speak but pen and paper gave him a voice, for the last time. I didn’t use our precious minutes to blame him for our difficulties. Nor did I judge him. I held his weak, cold hands – and gave love. Under tears I told him about the beautiful things he did for me. Stories about grandchildren that he hardly ever saw, and memories from my childhood – like how we went to the woods to collect mushrooms every autumn – were my last present to him. We looked in each other’s eyes – silence, tears, hugs, unspoken words, connection and love. Then he wrote a few words onto a piece of paper. His last present to me. Those incredibly heartfelt words mean a lot to me, never before had he been so open and vulnerable towards me.

I had ignored my own body’s signals for too long. The anxiety, the worries, the good and bad memories.

CLOSING A CHAPTER

Three weeks later my father died. I went back to Germany to see my mother, my sister and to fulfil my mum’s wish to say a few words at the funeral. I did my best and comforted my mother whenever I could. At the same time I believed that with the funeral and the farewell to my father, I could also close another chapter from my past and childhood. I thought I had made peace with him. However, it wasn´t going to be that easy.

Months passed and family life got busy. New jobs, moving and some other challenges were added to our daily job of parenting. Processing my father’s death, my inner wounds had no space in my mind and soul. I could feel that something wasn’t quite right with me. I started to feel unwell, tired, irritated, impatient, snappy and I had back-pains which I remember from my early twenties. At night I was tossing around or waking up shaking and sweating. Still, I kept going. To the point where I collapsed. Two days after my dad’s birthday. He would have been seventy-three.

At the hospital they couldn’t find anything. I was healthy. However, I still felt the back-pains and dizziness, so I tried my luck with an osteopath. Meeting him changed everything. I thought he would do some bone-breaking moves to get them into their right place, so I would feel better. Instead he did something so much better for me. He listened. For an hour I was just talking – about my children, my job, the changes in my life, and my dad. Subconscious and unresolved emotions and feelings made their way up and reminded me that they were still present inside.

After the long talk he examined me. I kept talking and more and more stuff was brought to the light. Again, he was listening, asking questions and taking care of me. He concluded that my breakdown was a panic attack and that I mainly needed to deal with the emotional aftermath of my father’s death and the big changes in my life. He could see some problems with the liver and subscribed supplements.

I had ignored my own body’s signals for too long. The anxiety, the worries, the good and bad memories. And I’m not alone on this ride: according to several studies, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “long-term effects of parental loss indicate that filial bereavement can impact both mental and physical health, with men being more likely to report physical health issues.” These studies show a rise in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, especially when the person has not received enough support during their bereavement. Even though I’m not depressed and my wife had supported me well after my father had died, I still had taken too little time to grieve and take care of myself.

I decided that’s where I had to start now. I wanted to be that loving, patient, calm and empathic father again. Pushing problems aside didn’t help at all. My osteopath suggested to start writing an honest letter to my father, without caring about grammar or spelling, and knowing that nobody would ever read it. Every day. To speak about all unspoken things and to offload the heavy weightg I’ve been carrying. Then, when I think I’m done, I should forgive my father everything as I would forgive myself and finish the letter with a feeling of peace and love. Well, I’m still writing and I feel the burden getting smaller and lighter with each page I write.

For my physical health I started to do yoga and tai-chi. I love the movements and deep connection between body and mind. I feel more grounded, calm and strong again. I also keep going with sticking to a vegan diet, with the occasional treat.

Also I decided to get help from a psychotherapist. It took me a moment to get easy with that step, but I pledged to become healthy again – emotionally and physically. The wise words “if we want to take better care of our children, we have to take better care of ourselves” by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, became my mantra. I want to be the hands-on dad again who can listen with empathy and patience. This is the least I can do for my family. And, do you know what my father had written in his last few lines to me? “You have chosen your path wisely. Keep going!” Yes, dad, I will. Promise.

This article was originally published in The Green Parent.

Relationships

In-Between Worlds – Connecting With My Dying Father

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It’s a long corridor, cold fluorescent light, constant beep-noises from invisible machines, and that smell. A strong disinfectant, like a heavy layer on everything and everywhere: on my hands, on my clothes, on people – even the water I drink tastes of it. In the distance two nurses and a doctor exchange encrypted messages – fast, emotionless, I had forgotten how harsh the German language can sound.

I sit in a small visitor area at the Berlin-Buch hospital. Intensive care unit. My father is here. My father, who I haven’t seen in 4 ½ years.

…48 hours earlier I had received a short email from my sister, who I hadn’t seen in 4 ½ years either. She had written that our father had major bleedings and had been taken to hospital for an emergency operation. Could I come? Of course, I can. I did. In less than six hours I had booked a flight, emailed my employer, packed a bag. A friend picked me up in the middle of the night to drive me to the airport. On my journey to Berlin a huge wave of anxiety, fear, tiredness and confusion flooded my body. What should I expect to see when I’m there? What can or should I say? Will he be alive? What will happen?

With sweaty but cold hands I boarded the plane. A beautiful purple-orange sunrise at take-off did let me forget everything for a moment. I just wondered who else might witness this little piece of magic and peace? Would my Dad see it? Or my children? No, they were probably still asleep. At 6am they didn’t know yet that their Dad left for Berlin to see Grandad. I left a note for them on the table.

In the early afternoon my mother, sister and I arrived at the hospital. With heavy steps we climbed up to the first floor. I held my mother and felt her shaking hand. The room seemed small. Behind a white curtain I saw the silhouette of a human body. Screens, tubes, cables, more tubes, beeps, noises. His face white and bloated. His eyes colourless and empty. I hardly recognised him…

When the Borders between Life and Death become Blurred

Now I’m sitting here. I try to figure out what’s going on. What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do? The doctors say it doesn’t look good for him. He’s got cancer. For months he had been receiving therapy and for a while he had been recovering quite well. Then this sudden bleeding. In only seconds he loses so much blood that life is fading away. The paramedics save him by minutes only. But after two days of artificial coma he’s coming around. Still, the doctor’s advice to me is to say good bye. How the fuck do I say good bye to my dying Dad? We haven’t spoken much in the last years. Short emails for birthdays and Christmas. Once in a while meaningless conversations over the phone: ‘Yes, it’s still rainy here. How’s the weather in Berlin?’ – you know, that kind of chat.

I have not the slightest idea what is going to happen. I feel helpless, speechless, alone. The only way to deal with this devastating situation is to follow my very own instinct and heart. Yes, in the back of my mind I remember so many moments where he and I were light years apart. His life and mine have little in common. Disappointment, frustration and even anger have been the ingredients for our relationship over the last years. He knows that. I know that. But I’m not here to judge him. This is not about forgiving, understanding or questioning. This is about being present and authentic. I listen to my heart and I feel my love for him. Love he needs to know about.

I go inside his room again. He is awake and his tired eyes look at me. I don’t know whether he is wondering what I’m thinking right now. He tries to smile. I take his hand, look into his eyes and kiss him. Tears run down his cheeks. Everything is still. Just him and I. We hold each other. A perfect moment between father and son. We are close, we are connected.
I don’t care about the past. I care about the present, about him, about now. I hold his hand and whisper that I love him. Tears block my throat. With a shaking hand he picks up pen and paper. He writes: ‘Torsten, I’m happy that you came’. I cry.

A New Closeness to My Family

He sleeps and I’m talking to a doctor again. He’s very clear and doesn’t hold back. His question drills a hole in my heart: ‘How far shall we go to keep him alive?’ What the hell does that mean? Of course they should and must try everything they can. Even if only machines keep him alive? You see, life is not always life. Am I here to make such a decision? No. As long as my father has clear moments it is entirely up to him.

My sister and I agree on that. My mother, understandably, wants to answer for him. Confusion follows. The doctors receive different messages, some get even lost with shift hand overs. It gets blurry and misty. Does this happen to all families where a relative might die? The chaos needs sorting. My sister and I sit together and talk. It feels good as we didn’t speak much with each other for years. We push our own issues with one another beside and focus on our father. I feel closer to her. I know her pain and she knows mine.

Together and somehow united we talk to the doctors again. And to our father. Gently I tell him what the doctors can do if he starts bleeding again. Frankly, it’s not much. I hold his hand again and under tears my sister and I talk about our mother; that he doesn’t need to worry about her, we’ll take care of her. No pressure on him, from no one. We ask him to use all his strength for himself, to make up his own mind. And whatever he decides about the hours and days to come, we will be there for him.

It’s quiet again. My Dad looks at my sister, then at me. He writes just one sentence on the white board I bought for him: ‘I want to go in peace’. We hug and kiss him. He smiles at us. I try to smile back. But tears run over my face and my body shivers. I feel incredibly sad and my heart could break any moment. But I also feel peace and truth. We are close to him and I am glad that we experience this moment together.

I don’t know how much time he has left. No one knows. What’s important for me is that in all this sorrow my father and I feel connected again. Something I have been longing for, for years. He knows that his son loves him, something all fathers want to know sooner or later. His note ‘I’m happy that you came’ is inside my pocket when I board the plane home.