A reflection on endings and beginnings as we start a new year.
The holidays for me are always a time of “good grieving”, when I acknowledge the biggest losses in my life and how those events have transformed me. My Dad’s death is at the top of that list. A cancer diagnosis so aggressive that from diagnoses to hospital admission to taking his last breath…3 days.
Forty-two years had separated us. We grew up in different generations and on separate coasts, but sports was our common bond and shared experience. We loved talking sports, attending sports…anything sports. My Dad wasn’t the type of guy to share how he was feeling, which became problematic near the end of his life. He greyed early but aged gracefully and retired with pride after 50 years of teaching high school students. It was a tremendous career that we hoped would culminate in many years of travel, recreation, and good times.
What transpired post teaching was a swift descent into neuroses, as lifelong OCD traits became full blown. Years prior we teased him for how long it took him to check all the doors, windows, and locks in the house. His teaching style in the classroom was anally consistent and never wavered. Thankfully it was effective. If you saw my Dad teaching in his 20’s as opposed to his late 70’s, you would see the same routines and probably hear the same goofy jokes he loved to tell. He was proud to let you know that he never gave the same test twice, which means he created EVERY test he ever gave from scratch. Think about the time commitment that involves. He woke up every day at same time, fell asleep in his chair like clockwork, played a little tennis, went to church. That was his life – routines. Thankfully he loved what he was doing.
With Calculus and teaching preparation no longer occupying his compulsive thinking, worry and anxiety started to take hold. The sudden death of his older brother six months post retirement, considered to be his best friend, was unbearable. He had experienced the death of his parents several years prior, but it was as if he did not have the psychological capacity to endure this particular loss.
And then the look began. That look on his face that couldn’t hide the turmoil that was raging under the surface. A once productive and brilliant man, loving and compassionate with all who met him, aged exponentially. It was as if his once capable mind turned redcoat and betrayed him. The odd combination of compulsive hand washing and worrying about going to hell were his most popular OCD traits, while other compulsions followed. In a tragically ironic twist, this man – who dedicated his life to helping others, wasn’t paid much for it, never had a mean word to say about anyone, attended church weekly his entire life – was worrying about going to hell.
The march to madness was on, and my therapy-resistant, medication-prescribed, twice-hospitalized Father was descending into despair. And despite all our efforts we were reduced to offering sympathy and false promises through clenched jaws. It was awful. His affliction reduced him to being so selfish. All he could think about was himself.
Several months into my Dad’s OCD and Depression, I embraced the high probability that he was never going to be who he once was. I had to grieve the former Dad with the current Dad still with us. My Dad was grateful I could accept him in his anxiety-riddled state of mind, and thankfully our relationship transformed. He relied on me to be honest with him and I was, never sugarcoating even when he asked me tough questions about his diagnosis and why anxiety had taken over his life. For the first time our conversations weren’t relegated to sports teams. Make no mistake he was still at times challenging to be around, but we found a way a way to optimize our time together despite his shutting out the rest of the world and becoming agoraphobic.
I was grateful to see him so often in those days, even though he continued to fade away from his former self. His compulsions intensified. Cancer came like a blessing after 5 years of emotional anguish and physical decline.
Dying was mercifully swift with family around him in his final moments, something he held on for until everyone was at the hospital and accounted for. I never felt more relieved for my Dad than the moment he died. He had endured so much with so little satisfaction and enjoyment in his life. I had long ago wished the OCD would leave him before he left us, but his current anguish seemed infinite until proven otherwise. As a Calculus teacher my Dad loved teaching about limits and thankfully his turmoil became finite while our memories of his better days could be limitless.
Losing my Dad was bad enough; it was even worse to lose the one person on this earth you most identify with. I was his namesake. We were very similar and very different at the same time. We enjoyed talking to people and we laughed together. My Dad was never one to give lectures to me or tell me how life is – he did that by example. His last years and death were no exception.
Seeing my Dad consume himself with so many ridiculous worries created a defiance in me to worry about little and stress about less. I haven’t always been great about that but it’s truly helped me thrive. Dad also taught me what true vulnerability and helplessness really is. It’s being around someone you love who’s suffering and all you can do is show empathy and be present. You can’t stop it.
Since my Dad’s death six years ago, my professional life has been dedicated to creating the type of private practice I have always wanted. But it’s doing the actual therapy that I love the most. I have my Dad to thank for that. I truly couldn’t help him, but I get to help others with similar issues who do have a very good chance to get better. There’s an irrepressible joy for me to be a part of that experience with each client I work with.
The joy I experience comes in alleviating conditions that I couldn’t with my Dad. That’s how I have transformed my grief. And I owe my Dad for all of this. His suffering became my rallying cry for others not to be resigned to a life of emotional despair. There’s nothing better than helping people through emotional turmoil and helping them believe in themselves and have true hope for the future.
So it’s true. My Dad’s death has been my life’s biggest loss and fueled my transformation into being an outstanding psychologist. Unfortunately he never got to witness the birth and growth of my private practice, nor my development as a clinician, but I know he was very proud of me and would be today. I never felt otherwise from him in my entire life.
I celebrate his full life and how he did what he loved for so many years. I celebrate him for a different reason, too. Those painful last years were the greatest motivator for me to excel at what I do, which in turn has impacted others, all thanks to my Dad.