My Father's Death

Mark Yang shares this personal story about the recent death of his father, being thankful for great memories, and understanding the diifference between a biologocal family and an emotional family

By Mark Yang, PsyD

March 31, 2011

Hello Everyone:

It has been one week since I’ve rushed back to be with my father during his last days.  For those of you who haven’t heard, my father passed away late Saturday evening, March 26th.  He passed away peacefully in his sleep.  My sister and brother-in-law were with him in the very end and his passing away was so peaceful, it was not discovered until he had exhaled his last breath.  We were told that this is the “blessing” of those who die from kidney failure.  The buildup of toxins in the body has a tranquilizing effect and the nurse and chaplain both told us that in regards to different ways of passing, the death that comes from kidney failure is one of the easiest and least painful.

On the other hand, prior to the last days, my father was mysteriously experiencing quite a bit of pain.  This was difficult for us to experience.  Thankfully, the pain was managed in the last three days of his life.

Needless to say, it has been an eventful couple of weeks.  God has a big sense of humor for prior to rushing back to the US to be with my father, I was giving a number of presentations in both Hong Kong and China related to the topic of preparing for death.  Furthermore, I had been supervising a number of students in clinical training placements that had to do with grief and anticipatory grief.  I had a fairly good academic and clinical understanding of grief and preparing for death and it is time that I continuing my learning through going through the process myself.

Truth be told, a big part of me is relieved that the suffering of my father and myself has come to an end.  For a number of years now, I had been waiting for that “call in the night” and had rehearsed the scenario a number of times in my mind.  They say that the waiting can be the hardest and I agree with this.  However, the actual grief can be difficult as well.  Like I’ve read, the grief does sneak up on you and hits you when you least expect it.  However, at this point, I am still mostly numb and relieved and for the most part in a task-completion mode to deal with all of the things necessary to wrap up a person’s life.  I suppose the feelings will catch up to me at some point and I’ll do my best to simply let it be and surrender to the process.

Below are a number of quotes that I used to open up my presentation on Preparing for Death.  These quotes take on new meaning for me now, particularly the last two quotes. 

  • Only when the night is dark enough do we then see the stars – Persian Proverb. 

  • Learning to live well is to learn to die well;  and conversely, learning to die well is to learn to live well. 

  • Cicero said, “To philosophize is to prepare for death”

  • Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  “Wisdom is nothing but a preparation for death.

  • Seneca, “No man enjoys the true taste of life but he who is willing and ready to quit it.”

  • Saint Augustine, “It is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.”

  • Although the physicality of death destroys man, the idea of death saves him.

  • Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

  • Beware of living as if you'll never die and dying because you've never lived.

  • “It is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.”  Dag Hammarskjold, Noble Peace Prize Winner, Secretary General of the United Nations

“It is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.”  Certainly it is at his death that I’ve come to know my father better.  Today, I visited a day-care program that he’s been attending for a long time.  These people have been more a part of my father’s life than I for the past number of years.  The social worker at the program told me that my father was playful and liked to flirt!  Numerous people have told me that my father was charming.  These are aspects of my father that I have basically never experienced before.  I have to search way back to my early childhood to recall memories and feelings that approached the description of my father that was offered to me recently.  I’m glad that he made this part of himself available to others.  It was his way of taking care and giving back to those who took care of him.  Just about all of his caretakers and healthcare providers were very fond of him.  He endeared himself to them and that was his gift to us children for they took care of him in our place.  This is very significant in the Chinese culture where filial piety is so important.  Intellectually, I can understand such a split presentation of himself to his family and to others.  I also know that this is not unique to my father and I can be the same way.  Nevertheless, I am sad that this part was not offered to my sisters and me.  Why is it that we can be so mean to people we love and kind to strangers?  Sigh!

The other thing that made the recent process difficult is all the drama that can or will arise at the time of death.  They say that people who have had near death experiences will explain that their life flashes before their eyes as they drift between this world and the next.  I really can’t comment on this but it is seems true that more than half of all the dramas and unfinished business from a lifetime of regrets come up at the end of life.  I had an student who is an experienced marriage and family therapist tell me that he’s seen more drama and family dynamics in the hospital room s at the hospice than all of his previous experiences working with families.  I now believe him with more conviction than ever.  “It is only in the face of death that a man’s self is born!”

Nevertheless, I am mostly at peace to say goodbye to my father.  What allowed me to do this are two meaningful experiences I shared with him.  The first was a 4 to 6 week stint in a rehab hospital in which I sat by his bedside 3 – 4 afternoons a week without exchanging many words.  I can’t say that I felt a deep sense of connection with him at that time.  Nevertheless, that time was meaningful to me for it was a way for me to say goodbye to him and show him that I loved him.  The second encounter that helped me to achieve peace was a trip taken 15 months ago to visit him with my then girlfriend.  She was amazing in her ability to connect to him and to help me to connect with my father.  In the presence of my girlfriend and myself, my father told me essentially that he has lived a good life.  He also told me that he is tired of suffering and that he is experiencing chronic pain.  I understood that he was saying goodbye to me, and perhaps even asking permission to depart.  Painfully, I told him that it was OK to go.  We did not exchange many words but felt very connected.  It was perhaps the only time I had shared tears with him.

I’ve taught my students on numerous occasions that It Is Never Too Late.  I pass on the knowledge that even though there is 40, 50, 60 or more years of regret, it is never too late.  It does not take 40 years of living to overcome 40 years of dying.  Jesus said to the man next to him on the cross that “Today, you enter the Kingdom of God.”  To quote the words of my mentor Dave Elkins, “When a journey (death) is in our future, it is never too soon to check out the travel guides and customs, and to learn the language of the world approaching.  And it is never too late to complete our birth.  Most of us lives half-unborn.  As the Buddha said, ‘It doesn’t matter how long you have forgotten, only how soon you remember.”

I’m thankful for the long trips that I’ve taken to visit and be with my father.  I’ll end this email with the second quote, “Beware of living as if you'll never die and dying because you've never lived.”  I guess I’m a teacher at heart and I hope you’ll understand that I “preach” and share now as a way to comfort myself.

April 10, 2011

Hello Friends and Family:

This is the second letter that I’m sending to you since my last update and a lot has happened in the meantime. Since the last update, I have cleaned out my father’s apartment and retrieved his ashes from the mortuary. I wished that I had more time to clean out his apartment for going through his material possessions is allowing him to speak to me in other ways.

First of all, I found out that my father liked to dress well. Somehow, these genes failed to transmit themselves to my gene pool. Nevertheless, after organizing and donating the majority of his clothes, I have succeeded in increasing my tie collection by 500% and my sweater collection by 300%. Do not hold out your breath though. There are not many days where you’ll catch me wearing a tie and Hong Kong has a limited number of cold days where a sweater is required. I am grateful for these linking objects that have both practical and symbolic value. I also found my father to be a hoarder. I suppose this is all relative and I’m asking permission for disclosure posthumously. But if he was still around, I would ask him if he knows how many sets of pajamas he has in his closet. I suspect the answer that I would have received, is the same answer that I am getting now. Namely, SILENCE! But you get the idea. And now, I have two sets of pajamas that can help me to help me channel Austin Powers! Yeah Baby!

On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about death in the past two weeks. During the presentations on death written about in the previous email, Dr. Louis Hoffman reminded us of how important meaning was to both life and death. He added that this meaning is inseparable from sustaining relationships. I have found this to be powerfully true. Furthermore, I have been reflecting upon the simple life recently and my experience of losing my father and contemplating now my own death reminds me of the beauty of living a simple life. In my class on existential psychology, I ask all of my students to write their own obituaries. This is inevitably met with both quiet and vocal exasperations. Nevertheless, I persist. And inevitably, I am rewarded with Thankfulness from a few students from the enlightenment they’ve received from daring to embrace this assignment. Without exception, in all 35+ obituaries I’ve received, no one has mentioned any material possessions and the majority, if not all, of the students write about the relationships, past, present, and future that are important to them. Thankfully, my students and I have time still to build and maintain some of these sustaining relationships.

Conversely, during these past two weeks, I was able to share and compare family stories with a relative of mine. He shared of his parents who were both living, but living miserably. They had material wealth, but the material wealth did not protect them from their misery. Instead, one could easily argue that it contributed to their misery and isolation. He shared that his parents cared more about “face,” which is often associated with status and wealth, than relationships. And now, they isolate themselves while both waiting for the relief and stark terror of death without the sustaining comfort of meaningful relationships. What painful lives!

Receiving the gift from this relative helped me to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of my father’s life and death. Even though my father died a simple man, with little in the way of material wealth, he was not completely isolated. First of all, my sister helped me to see that my father was a sentimental man. YOU COULD HAVE FOOLED ME! Yet, as I thought about it, I saw that she was right for he was a photographer by trade and kept a large number of photo albums around. The photographer’s genes somehow bypassed me as well! Thus further separating me from the Hong Kong Experience. These photo albums are his greatest gifts and possessions he left us. Unfortunately, my sisters and I did not have the time to walk down these memory lanes but it was surreal to see pictures of my parents’ wedding. This suggested to me that they once had love for each other and made a handsome couple. Sigh, the remnant ashes of a marriage dissolved!

Second, my father did have some meaningful relationships that were likely sustaining for him towards the end. And this is true even though I would not place my father very high up in the list of sustaining relationships for me, and I don’t know the meaning of my relationships to him, except to hear from my ex-girlfriend on a few occasions that he was proud of me. Again, this was news to me! It would have been nice for him to express that to me directly! In the evening immediately following his death, subsequent to the viewing of his body, my sisters and I shared a meal with a beautiful couple from Shanghai China who took care of my father for two years prior to his death. In lieu of a memorial, this was our simple private event/ritual to celebrate my father’s life. The devotion of this couple helped me to appreciate my father’s own hospitality and devotion. For devotion begets devotion. Again, I had to reflect and think deeper about my father’s life in order to “see” and understand him after his death. Then of course there were all of those healthcare workers that he charmed and flirted with. Now I know that owning a 60’s“metro” wardrobe is not an absolute prerequisite for charms and flirtations for he was unable to wear most of his clothes towards the end of his life. Perhaps there is some hope for me yet! Yes, yes, I know, the “metro” wardrobe definitely adds a new dimension and I need all the help I can get! In the end, without his children nearby, I’m comforted to know that my father cultivated some meaningful relationships towards the end of his life.

Related to this, I am also comforted by attending a workshop this weekend. At the workshop, the facilitator shared something simple and at the same time profound, challenging and releasing with the group. She said that her therapist, after a long career of seeing many people and families in therapy told the facilitator that she’s learned that we all have our biological families AND our emotional families and blessed are those few for whom these are the same. In other words, for the majority of the client’s she’s seen, this is painfully not the case. To say the same thing in a more crass manner, one of the members followed with the following bumper sticker, “If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family!”

My father is part of my biological family, but not my emotional family. It took a long, long time for me to be OK with this. Strangely, at least for now, two weeks after his death, I find that he is more emotionally available to me in his death than while he’s alive! Strange, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s his death that releases me? Or is this a reflection of the ways in which I have learned to become my own father? One of my good friends told me that the only person who can take care of me the way I want to be taken care of is myself! I don’t like this statement! I’m still chewing on it. Or, perhaps all of this is a testament to the “genes” that my father was able to transmit down to me. Probably all of the above I suppose. At the very least, I know that I’m going to shock the world with a few more ties!

– Thanks for listening, Mark Yang, PsyD