10 things I learned from my father’s death; understanding my relationship with death

“Why should a sunset be any less beautiful than a sunrise?” it read on a framed poster as I entered the nursing home/hospital that my dad was staying at for the last two months. But that day, 9/28/17, it brought lots of tears to my eyes as I tried hard to find the beauty in it all, yet all I could feel was shock, excruciating sadness, and emptiness.

 

My dad was a beautiful soul, and he had cancer and fought like a warrior for the last two exhausting years. He started out with Stage 1 colon cancer, but then we found more tumors in his lungs which gave him the stage 4 sentence, which in the last two years, ended up spreading to all his bones, lymph nodes, and ultimately brain. He fought for every second of it – he had multiple surgeries after surgeries, chemo, radiation, whatever was thrown at him by the oncologists, he took on with a smile.

 

With the exception of the last few weeks of his life – he noticeably wasn’t being his kind, generous self. Whether it was due to just him being in so much pain, or personality changes that could happen with some of these extremely harsh treatments, or the tumors affecting his cognitive/emotional areas of his brain, he was rather angry, distant and not the kind, generous, high spirited dad that I remembered. That broke my heart everyday, more than anything, because I felt that I had already lost a part of his soaring spirit.

 

But that night, he was back to his normal old self for a moment – I could just tell. That night he reached for mine and my mom’s hands and even gave it a warm squeeze. He was having a difficult time breathing but he was still telling me that I need to eat and sleep well, and that I should go home to rest that night.

 

I typically headed home after he finishes his dinner, but that night, for whatever reason, for whatever my intuition told me, I stayed a little while longer. But still, I denied the potential reality that he could pass that night. It was about 1:40 am, when I decided that even though my dad could not talk to me because all his energy was towards breathing, I wanted to communicate with him. So I closed my eyes, put my hand on his left bony rib cage, where his heart would be, and started matching his breathing to show him support and love. I wanted him to know that I was there and wanting to be present with him, even if that meant I couldn’t communicate with him verbally. I felt his energy – and to my surprise I felt that he was at peace, although his body was in pain. I can’t really explain how I was able to feel all this just by putting my hand on his heart, but I assure you that I did. I was listening and talking to his soul, since his sick and broken body could not even allow him to speak properly anymore.

 

I meditated and prayed with him like that for about 20 minutes, then I felt that his energy and breathing was calmer. Then as my dad requested earlier that night, I snuck out quietly around 2 am so I can get some rest so I can be with him the next day, and I didn’t want to wake him from his sleep. I didn’t even say goodbye – I just left, because I thought I would see him first thing in the morning again.

 

But that ended up being my last moment with him.

 

Around 3:30 am, not even been asleep for 30 minutes after I got home, I had just fallen deep asleep from a long emotionally charged day and night, and I got a call from my mom that I should return to the hospital. So exhausted and still asleep, apparently my response was “huh? I just got home from the hospital…” (I personally don’t even remember this conversation I had with my mom) and fell back asleep for about 5 minutes. Then something HIT me, and I woke up in panic, realizing what that call probably meant. I looked at my mom’s text and she said, drive safely and wear something warm.

 

I didn’t even change, and I left my apartment anxiously and drove over to the hospital that I had just left. At this point I was still so exhausted and confused, or maybe rather in denial what that call could actually mean. 25 minutes of drive later, I was back at the hospital, and I had to ring the doorbell so that one of the nurses can open the front door for me at 4:10 am since it is well past normal visiting hours.

 

I didn’t run, but I walked fast, really fast and nervously to room 36, where he had been staying for the last few weeks. And I kept telling myself, he is probably in a critical condition and I should prepare for the worst sometime within the next few days… but in my heart, I had a heavy and cold feeling I could not explain.

 

As I walked into room 36, my dad was already changed into nice clothes and under clean white sheets. All his IV and his air tube from his nose were gone. Then I immediately knew, before my mom could turn to me… with her broken heart and her red swollen eyes, “he left this world.”

 

I felt every part of my body panic, and before I knew it I was crying uncontrollably over his physical presence, but his spirit, his soul, his life had already left his body.

 

Time of his death was 3:58 am. The next few hours were a big blur – a nun from my mom’s church came and did a prayer for him, and a few of my relatives came right away. Since he wished to donate his body to UCI for research, a few hours later, their representative came and picked up his body, and that was it. Just like that he had gone to heaven and his body was also taken away.

 

***

 

It’s been a little over a week now. I can’t believe it’s been over a week. I still have vivid flashbacks from that night as if it just happened. Then I immediately shake my head trying to snap out of it sometimes.

 

But now that I’ve had some time to process, I realize a few very important things that I have learned during this excruciatingly painful process, as well as my forming relationship with death (I have never had anyone close to me pass away). How could something this painful be lacking of a lesson or an opportunity to better wisdom. So here it goes.

 

  1. No one’s expiration date is expected, predicted, or can be controlled. One of the reasons I keep playing back that night that my dad passed in my head is because I keep telling myself, if I had just stayed 2 more hours, I could have been there for his last breaths, and I wouldn’t have to feel this pang of guilt and sadness for leaving him that night. I think about how he would have been alone, maybe scared, maybe lonely, and it makes my heart hurt. But I know that there is no way that I could have known that would happen that night. No one’s last breaths can be predicted. In the midst of all this, the mass shooting in Las Vegas just happened a few days ago too. There were over 50 people killed, without an opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. Some were young, some were older, yet no one expected that they would die that night. What we don’t have control over, we have to surrender to. Although I still have these moments of flashbacks accompanied by various emotions, I do not resist any feelings that come up, whether it be sadness or guilt, and I allow myself feel them to its full depth. And once I feel that I have recognized that thought, felt that feeling, I let the thought and emotion float away with all the other moments in my life, and that’s how I am learning to surrender to the unpredictable nature of death.
  2. Listen to your intuition. That night, my intuition told me very strongly that he might pass that night. Multiple symptoms that were present should have been flashing signs to me when thinking about it retroactively that he was nearing his last few hours of his life. But, I vetoed my intuition that night over and over because I was scared; it was scary to think that my intuition would be right and that he would pass that night. I left that night deep in my heart knowing that maybe there’s a strong possibility that he could pass that night and that maybe I should stay to be with him. While I surrender to the unpredictable nature of death as it happened, my experience that night taught me to confide in my intuition, as well as to recognize when I try to override it due to my own fear.
  3. The sheer magnitude of my dad’s love for me is beyond my current capacity to understand fully. He had told his sisters in the past that when he passes, he did not want my mom and I to see him take his last breath, because he wanted to protect us. He had told me that night, that I should “eat and sleep well.” Looking back, he was telling me that I should eat and sleep well for the rest of my life even if he is not there and to take care of myself. He also told me that night, despite the fact that he was using all his energy just to breathe, reassured me that everything will be okay. “Yuri, (gasping for air) don’t be scared no matter (gasp) what happens. (gasp) Know (gasp) that this is all (gasp) a natural part of life [in Korean].” He has said things like to me before, so I didn’t think too much of it – I took it more as general wisdom that he shares often. But he knew that night that he was nearing his last breaths, and despite his pain and him preparing for his own death, he was concerned about me and wanted to comfort me before he passed. His number one priority, even in his last few hours of his life, was my well-being. Thinking about this overwhelms me. I thought I had an idea how much he loves me, but I realize what I think I know is just the tip of the iceberg.
  4. And death is, indeed, a natural part of life – just as my dad told me. I realized that for the most part, most people will lose their parents in their life time, and most people will feel this sadness and pain too. Death is a natural part of a human’s (or any living thing’s) life – yet it is often feared and not talked about. But those who practice yoga know – every yoga practice always concludes with savasanah – or corpse pose. We remind ourselves that for that yoga practice to be complete, there needs to be a pose that captures the essence of death, as a natural last part of the cycle of yoga and symbolically the last part of life. This last pose invites us to be still and reflect on the growth that we experienced from that yoga practice. Maybe death, in a life cycle, serves a similar opportunity for reflection and gratitude for the growth experienced in their lifetime. And, in fact, we experience death of each moment, every single second, as we constantly meet our new “present moment.” There’s always the sense of letting go and closing doors to what we call the “past” as we create new moments in the present. In a way, death is just another moment, or series of moments, that we call life, that has passed. But in that, we find a conclusion, a complete cycle of life, and that, as any “natural occurrences” that we experience in life, can maybe even be considered beautiful. And that poster makes more sense now, “Why should a sunset be any less beautiful than a sunrise?” They are both natural and magnificent.
  5. My dad’s death left me more courageous and fearless. As a child, one of my biggest fears was losing my parents. I’ve had many nightmares about losing them when I was young. Experiencing my dad’s death, which was one of my biggest fears in life, reminded me that even when my biggest fear becomes reality, the moment passes, and I am here, I am still standing, and still living on. I am therefore far more resilient and my childhood fears are no longer valid, now that my parents have taught me all the ways to carry on life, even if that means without their physical presence eventually. This realization has diminished many of my other fears in life. When one of your biggest fears has already happened, and you are still strong and alive, and it shows you your own resilience. So what does that say about any of my other fears in life? I am ready to take on anything for I recognize that fear is just that, fear, and I am far more equipped and strong and resilient than I let my fears trick me into thinking at times.
  6. Death brings peace in the form of non-attachment. And going back to the yoga metaphor, after svasanah, we always feel at peace and refreshed. My dad’s energy was at peace that night he passed. He knew that escaping his sick and broken body would bring him peace. Although I mourn his death, I find peace in that his spirit is free and magnificent now, that his spirit is no longer attached to a physical body that was weighing him down. He is free to fly far with no attachments to the physical world. He must feel so peaceful and refreshed as he detaches from all, and flies lightly and freely as his own spirit.
  7. Someone who has not experienced death cannot possibly understand all the colors of life, yet. There is an unexplainable sense of wisdom, and even courage, that I gained as I experienced my dad’s journey of death. You don’t look at life the same anymore. You realize that everyone has an expiration date and all you can do is live it as best as you can while you have your time here. This makes you reflect on all the decisions you made, haven’t made, and forces you to reassess every aspect about your life. This gives you the courage and reminder to live the life that you truly want because one day, you will also take your last breath, and the only way to prepare for death, is to live.
  8. My dad, will always, live in my heart and he is sending me little messages to show me he still loves me all the time, and I believe he will continue to do so as long as I live. During the last two years, I sometimes found myself laughing or enjoying life for various funny or joyful moments that happened around me. Then immediately, that momentary joy often turned into guilt, as I thought, how could I possibly have the audacity to be laughing and enjoying anything right now when my dad is in so much pain and fighting for his life? Then when I verbalized this to my friends, they always reminded me, your dad would definitely WANT you to smile and laugh, and enjoy life, not suffer just because he was suffering. Those moments, even after he passed, I felt as if he was speaking through them, reminding me, it’s okay to still love life. One of my best friends sees a butterfly every time she thinks of her father who passed away in her teenage years. I too, have seen many butterflies lately. I have also seen many sculptures or designs of elephants (my dad’s favorite animal was an elephant – and it is a very spiritual animal), reminding me that his spirit is with me, as long as he lives in my heart. And every time I see these little signs, I smile, because his presence is always felt in my heart.
  9. The sorrow I feel of my father passing is only really traces of love and connection I had with him surfacing in a different form. If I hadn’t met him, hadn’t accepted him as my father (my dad is technically my step dad but I have treated him as if he is my own dad since I was 11 years old when he married my mom), hadn’t loved him deeply, and hadn’t cultivated a strong daughter-father connection with him, I would not have shed all the tears and many sleepless nights grieving, not only upon him passing but for the last 2 years that he’s been fighting cancer. And in that sense, that sorrow is beautiful – for one cannot feel sad of losing a connection, had there never been one to mourn over. How much I loved him and the precious memories I have as his daughter are not something I would ever exchange so that this moment I would not feel the sorrow and pain of losing him.
  10. So death not only completes the full cycle of life, but gives meaning and value to living and the lives of those who have passed. In that sense, without death, we would not truly see how much we loved and how much we valued one’s life. Without death, no one may value their life because time and memories would no longer be scarce. My dad once told me that there’s always two sides to everything, even in concepts like love, death, living, etc. Because there is life, there is death; yet because there is death, there is life.

 

Although I’ve been grieving slowly since 2 years ago upon his diagnosis, I am still deeply sad and miss him terribly – everyone who has lost their parent I’ve talked to agrees with me – it comes in waves. But what I did find is some peace and beauty in that sadness, for that proves that his life and my connection to him were worth mourning the losses of. While I surrender to what I can’t control and that he has passed, I also find clarity in what the controllables are in my life and what opportunities that I can invite to my life by choosing every day to live to its full potential aligned with my own mission and choosing to live everyday with love.

 

***

Dad, thank you for teaching me these beautiful lessons from your graceful and spiritual path you have shown me in your process of facing death. While your physical body is no longer in our presence, I find your kind, compassionate, and loving soul continue to teach me very important life lessons that were necessary for me to learn. I will always love you dad… I will always be your “Yuri angel” and you will always be my angel. ❤