I need some advice about visiting my father in the hospital
November 17, 2010 1:22 PM   Subscribe

My dad has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We are not close. I'd like some level of closure but don't know what I want.

My parents divorced when I was young and my relationship with my father ground to stop when I was about 16. I rekindled it when I was 20. He was not inclined to seek a relationship with me. I realized that it would never be terrific, but, I could have a relationship on my terms. Then we lost touch for years. Came back into contact and have had, maybe 2-3 face to face visits a year and maybe 8-10 phone calls.

I recently learned (through one of his siblings) that he had been diagnosed with cancer. I called him and he said that the oncologist was uncertain of where the cancer was but that it was present. Sounded sketchy to me, but it is his decision what to share with me. I learned today that he has been admitted to the hospital. It looks like his kidneys are failing. I discussed this with his sibling who said "he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, it has spread to his kidneys and his lungs." Wow. There it is. All on the table. A lot to think about and deal with.

I have a sibling who has not spoken to my dad in more than 25 years. I told him what was going on. I do not hold any expectations in terms of him wanting to see our father. What is a difficult element is that I know I will be asked if I told my brother what was happening and I will have to answer "I have". Most likely he will not engage in any conversations....but we will see.

I am going to see him in the hospital tomorrow and don't know what I expect. I'd appreciate the perspective of anyone who has a similar "estranged status" and has gone through this. I just need to put my head around my visit tomorrow. I really don't know if this is a deathbed visit or not but feel like I should treat it as such.

How did you come to terms with the mortality of a non-present parent? What level of closure do you have or wish you had? Any other advice?

posted by zerobyproxy to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You have to come to terms (make peace for yourself) if not for your father. That does not mean that tomorrow will disolve the last 20 or so years you and your father have been estranged from each other - but he is still your Dad - and when he ends his battle with this terrible disease - you will still be alive and you have to live with yourself and your own conscience. Be kind, polite, attentive - show you care - even if it has been difficult for him to do the same. In the end you want to be at peace with the way you treated him - that is all you can ever control - your own actions.
posted by pamspanda at 1:49 PM on November 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

I can't give you the perspective of the estranged child visiting a dying parent, but I have lost two people close to me via hospice in the last two years, one from quickly spreading cancer. I'm not sure if you've ever been in that type of situation but maybe I can prepare you for that?

Even though you may not be sure if this is a deathbed visit, if he has stage four metastatic cancer and his kidneys are failing its likely that he's begun the dying process already.

Dying is a bit like how women go through labor before giving birth; it is a process rather than a sudden event. Changes happen throughout the body as it shuts down.

You might find that your Dad's appearance has changed a lot; my friend who passed from cancer looked like victim of starvation and exposure in the end, where only three weeks before he had been able to "pass" as healthy. Your dad's skin might be thin and papery and pale and his face may appear different and sunk-in.

Depending on where your father is in this process and/or how quickly he passes through it, he may not even be in what appears to you a conscious state, or he may be able to talk to you. He'll probably be on pain medicine and anti-anxiety medicine (and if he's not he should be.) Hearing is one of the last things to go so no matter how conscious he appears he'll hear you if you talk to him.

Again I don't know anything about being estranged from a parent but sometimes seeing someone close to their passing can put perspective into past misgivings and uncertainty (and sometimes not). However you felt about him you may get some closure just from saying goodbye. Your brother may not, but, that is certainly his choice.

You may need to sit quietly for a while after your visit and perhaps need to talk to someone later, it might be a good idea to call a empathetic friend and let them know about your visit, and ask them to be available if you need?

I'm so sorry this is happening.
posted by red_lotus at 1:58 PM on November 17, 2010

Check your MeMail.
posted by decathecting at 2:03 PM on November 17, 2010

Look, the only personal experience I have is with a now deceased landlord and an his daughter.

For her own reasons, and I assume they were good enough for her, she ended their relationship completely - completely. But, he grew older and needed her help. She made due on promises to never enter her old home, instead sending her husband to handle many errands. As he grew older, he was moved from his house into a hospice unit. She visited twice, once on admission and once at the end, as well as and attended his funeral.

As an outsider, I knew him and not her. What ever sins he commited he had tried to attone for - not that he succeeded (in my eyes), but what ever sins he had commited had broken him down and there was no more part of him that was his former self. He died slowly, painfully, blind, and a shell of himself - and I judge that based on the shell of a man that I knew. From what I know, he knew he could never make ammends for his mistakes, and perhaps seeking some semblance of forgiveness or at least inner peace - which may or may not have been given/been found was what held him on for as long as it did. I don't know.

All I know is from my life - which was much happier, but I probably wouldn't say that I'm close to my dad persay - just not that distant. I know I would be there if it were my dad - that almost any argument, or difficulty we've had in the past would be immaterial to the need to be there for him.

And if not for him, then for those relatives that may be there that may have found peace with him - a funeral, a hospital - is hopefully more for the living than the dead.

Don't go seeking closure for something specific. You're getting closure on everything. The question is how do you want the last few chapters written.

If I was angry: for me, I'd sit back, listen to a little later-in-life Johnny Cash covers: (God's gonna cut you down, Hurt, Ain't no grave, In my Life, I see a Darkness, The First Time I Saw Your Face) and come to terms with the fact that its over - closure or not.

You and your father have my condolences, may you each find peace, and if you desire, may you find it together.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:08 PM on November 17, 2010

My father and I were not technically 'estranged' so much as we'd just never had much connection. When I was little, he had shown up for every visitation (twice a week) and every child support payment arrived on time, he remembered mine & my kids birthdays, holidays, etc . . . there just was never an emotional click. I was his only child, he never remarried, he wasn't close to his siblings. For most of my life, I truly believed that I would be unaffected by his death, as he was only ever on my periphery.

Well, in 3/09 I got a call that he was in the hospital with congestive heart failure -- his heart was very weak as a result of a disease caused by an error in his DNA. 7 months later, he was dead.

I think you always end up wishing you had tried harder. In my case, I have plenty of witnesses and evidence that I went above and beyond to be a good daughter to him, but still . . . I can think of things I wish I had done. As he was unconscious on his deathbed, I told him that I 'knew he'd done the best that he could for me, and I hoped he knew that I'd done my best for him'. As uncomfortable as it would have been, I wish I'd said that when he was conscious. No, he wasn't the best dad. He had a lot of faults. But he was not so bad that I would want him to die feeling guilty. I wanted to give him as much peace as I could. I wanted to be able to go on with my life with as few regrets about his death as possible.

I guess what I would suggest is to have the things you want to say prepared for a deathbed visit. Think of all the things one would say if he'd been the best dad ever, and figure out which of those you can stomach saying, and be prepared to say them. Apologize if you think of anything you might come to regret one day. Figure out what you need to say to have peace with yourself when you leave.

I was wrong when I thought I would be unaffected -- my father's death has had a huge impact. In part because it's possible he passed that DNA error on to me, which is a big deal in it's own right. But on a day to day level, I struggle with wondering who the hell he was, what did he think, what was he feeling all those years that we never clicked? Did he buy that mini-van the year my twins were born with my kids in mind? From my perspective, his life seemed wasted -- did he think it was wasted? Did he know that I loved him, even though *I* didn't know it?

It might feel mighty stupid at the time, but I think in the long run you'll feel better if you say the emotional things.
posted by MeiraV at 3:01 PM on November 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you should be very proud of the efforts you've made already and the fact that you're going to the hospital at all. For someone who considers himself estranged, you're doing a lot. At least, it's more than my half-siblings did when our father was dying, and I understood completely why they couldn't show--they not only had a terrible relationship with him, but visiting the dying really makes some people upset. It's usually best for everyone involved to accept that different people handle this kind of thing differently, and there's a pretty good chance your father will realize that and be pleased that your way of handling it is to be there for him, however briefly. It sounds like you are unlikely to have a current picture of yourself with him, and that might be nice to have. If that's not easy or appropriate to arrange, then just try to fix something meaningful in mind about your visit. I went and got my dad some cranberry juice from a store down the street. It was more or less the last special favor anyone ever did for him, and so it remains one of the most meaningful things I've ever done.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:41 PM on November 17, 2010

If it is at all helpful, I was with an aunt in her final hospice days. This was my mother's sister who in one of my last dealings with had turned to me drunkenly and said "I never liked you". Her husband (a bigger louse) had died and my mother was hospitalized herself so this woman had no one else that she was close to (due to her own anti-social behavior) that could treat her with any kindness in her final days.
I visited daily and did what I could as I felt that this is a person who needs something and I am a person who can fill this need. It turned out to be a honor because it was a honorable thing. She remained her self-involved, racist, ignorant self and I didn't react but brought cold Seven Up and held the straw to her lips and held her hand.

It was much simpler than what you are going through as there is so much more with a parent.
Best wishes and kindness your way.
posted by readery at 10:02 AM on November 18, 2010

The book Lessons for the Living is written by a hospice volunteer about the kinds of closure people seek as they prepare to die, and how knowing what's important from that perspective can also help us live well.
posted by salvia at 11:37 AM on November 28, 2010

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