Welcome to the Club

Welcome to the Club

By Larry Dawalt

On February 27 my Dad died, and I became a member of a club I had avoided for 63 years. I know hundreds, maybe even thousands of members of this club and have walked with many of them on their journey through the loss of a parent. I knew my day would come, especially when Dad started showing symptoms of progressive supranuclear palsy three years ago and his body slowly deteriorated to the point that he could barely walk, talk, or eat. He even lost his smile, the smile of a loving husband, father, grandfather, pastor and friend that had warmed many hearts over the years, including mine. When the call came on Valentine’s Day that he was not doing well, I hurried to his nursing home in Forest City to be by his side. During the course of the day, medical testing revealed that he had Flu A & B, double pneumonia and a Urinary Tract Infection; quite a battle for an 87-year-old. He spent five days in the hospital in Shelby before being transported back to Forest City where he died nine days later in a hospice house.

People have been wonderful. I have received calls, cards, letters, flowers, sympathy baskets and many hugs. I have felt the support of my family and friends, and I have been allowed to pace myself and ease back into work life through the support of my wonderful team at Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region.

Fortunately, I didn’t hear much bad advice or idle comments, though I must admit cringing and breathing a heavy sigh when I heard ‘did you know your Dad’s funeral is on the same day as Billy Graham’s’ for the 29th time. The words I have heard most, though, are logical admonitions for someone who has been doing grief counseling for almost 25 years: ‘take your own advice. You know what to do. Do what you told me.’

During all the counseling sessions I have done, the articles I have written and the talks I have presented over the years, I have sincerely tried to comfort people during their time of sorrow. Now that I am going through one of my own, I want to share a few things I have found to be true to this point, as I write this exactly four weeks after his death.

  1. Grief is context dependent. You aren’t always sad and you aren’t always happy. It’s both/and. You can be crying one minute and laughing the next. One person can hug you and you simply say thank you while a hug from another can bring a geyser of tears as memories flood your eyes.
  2. Introverts and extroverts grieve differently. Some need quietness and stillness or just a friend or two, while others need to talk and talk and always have someone around. Neither way is the right way. Do what’s right for you.
  3. Even when it’s not on top of you, grief is just under the surface and the tears can come at any moment- so be prepared. But don’t be embarrassed. It is what it is and that’s okay.
  4. You can still work, play, laugh, or do almost anything you want to do- but only in spurts and only if you make the decision.
  5. You have to go at your own pace.
  6. Gratitude for the life eventually wins out over the sorrow of the death.
  7. Nothing is more valuable than a loving family.
  8. Having someone to walk beside you, hold your hand, put another log on the fire, listen without trying to fix it and just generally understand is a blessing never to be taken for granted.
  9. Things happen during the dying process that aren’t fun.
  10. The members of the ‘I’ve Lost a Parent’ club are loving and compassionate, and they treat your loss like it’s the most significant loss in the world.

Life will go on. I will start doing grief counseling sessions again soon and I will also stand by the beds of dying patients in my role as a healthcare chaplain. Chameleon’s Journey will be here in the fall and I will join my family of staffers and campers for the 19th year of our annual children’s grief camp. It’s who I am. It’s why I am here.

Thanksgiving will have some sad moments, and this will be yet another year that I read the Christmas story instead of Dad at our annual family gathering. But it will be all right. I will survive being a member of the club, and I am already looking forward to extending love, kindness and care to the next person I know that joins because that has helped sustain me. It is what will sustain us all. If you have it, treasure it and extend it, because there is someone out there who will soon be a new member- and we will take care of them.

Larry Dawalt is Senior Director of Spiritual & Grief Care Services at Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region, joining the organization in 1997. In addition to earning a Master of Divinity degree and completing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education, Larry is a Board Certified Chaplain and has received the designation Certified in Thanatology from the Association of Death Educators and Counselors, Certified Trauma Services Specialist from the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists and Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator from the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association. As an invited speaker, Larry has addressed national, regional and local organizations on topics dealing with spirituality, comparative religion, compassionate communication, end of life care, and grief.