I'm not ready to lose my father, I don't want to be alone
July 2, 2016 1:07 AM   Subscribe

My father has been diagnosed with cancer and will probably die within the next year (two years if we're lucky), all I think about is about his impending death. I'm an only child and, to me, his death will mean that I'm completely alone in the world. I am so scared of losing him, but I am literally helpless. I feel like I'm waiting for him to die and I don't know how to cope with it. Any advice?

I'm in my late-20s, and supposedly a competent adult, but my father has been my primary parent since I was around 12. My mother is basically an alcoholic with an untreated mental illness (which she's refused to treat for the past 16+ years). Honestly, I feel like I don't have a mother. I will have to take responsibility for her when he dies, that's fine with me, but she has been no source of comfort to me. I'm not close with any members of my extended family. I will be completely alone when my father dies. I wouldn't even feel comfortable putting my mother as an "emergency contact," I have no idea who I'd use as my emergency contact when my father dies.

Is it possible to get through this period, somehow? I always thought that I would be older and with a family of my own when he died. I thought that I would have more support, but I don't. I'm not ready to lose him.

The future is terrifying to me right now. I am seeing a therapist, but I almost wonder if I'm beyond help. What else should I be doing? Every single day that goes by is closer to his death. I feel like that C.S. Lewis quote: "Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you are going through this. I lost my Dad to cancer three and a half years ago.
Things that were true for me
You will get support and love from the most unlikely people. Some close friends won't be able to offer much support but others will be there for you in surprising ways.
I find myself thinking a lot about what my Dad would have done or, I am proud of my Dad for teaching me that, ever since he died. In a way it's like he's still there.
Taking it one day at a time helped me keep my sanity. There were bad days, and awful days, but there were also joyful moments, even in the last weeks.
You can message me if you need to vent.
posted by M. at 1:29 AM on July 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

It may help if you sit down with your dad and a tape recorder, and kind of interview him about his life and family history and all kinds of stuff. It may help you feel like you got answers to a lot of your questions, and you'll know you can always hear his voice again. Or you might ask him to record some tapes for you, so you can kind of "check in" with him every few years.

As sad as it is, knowing he's terminal does give you both a chance to plan some things. When I thought I was terminal during my cancer a few years back, almost everything felt like a waste of time, other than connecting with my family and old friends. I was desperate for some sense that I wouldn't piff away to nothing when I died, leaving no trace. It could be really good for both of you, if you can feel like he's leaving something of himself behind for you.

I wonder, could this be a time to approach your mother about getting help? You have plenty to deal with already, but I wonder if the situation with your dad may motivate her to finally deal with her issues. Maybe it would help if you actually said, "Mom, Dad is dying, and you're all the family I have left. I want you in my life, but you need to get help." If that sounds like something you may want to try, I'd say talk to your therapist about it.

Give yourself some credit. You may feel like a lost, helpless child right now, but you are already out there being a grown-up. You know you can function in the world. You're doing it. This will be really hard, but you'll get through it the same way billions and billions of grown-ups have gotten through it before you. You'll grieve, but life will go on.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:18 AM on July 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

You are hurting, but you are not beyond help and you are not alone. Sometimes we have to endure things that we cannot avoid, but life is still there on the other side and people are going to need you and be very glad to have you. MeMail me anytime.
posted by Songdog at 7:20 AM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hey, I went through a series of experiences over the course of several years that did not include a parent's death but were all cataclysmic, several of which involved grief. It was kind of insane, like how can this many awful things keep happening to one person? I remember at the peak of it all, sobbing and thinking I literally could not live through the pain I was in--nobody could--just the very fact of being alive, of breathing, was unbearable.

I got through it. I'm still in it, sort of, several years on, still picking up pieces, but my life is so much better now than it has ever been. I'm still in a fair amount of pain sometimes, and I still have not quite returned to the point where I can feel the uncomplicated joy in life that I once did. But the fact that I am alive is proof that you can survive the most awful things.

I took some gifts from this awfulness. One is a phenomenal amount of resilience. It's kind of a dysfunctional amount of resilience, because it means that when a couple of lingering awful things happened to me last year, I sort of took them in stride way more than is normal because I sort of expect awful things to happen to me now. I'm not explaining this very well, but basically, what would have stopped me in my tracks a few years earlier, I just kind of coped with and soldiered on.

Another gift is my appreciation of small things. A nice cup of coffee. The sight of a pretty rose. These tiny things, which I usually had to look for very hard, were often the only bright spot in my life.

Finally, for the first time in my life, I really learned to lean on other people, because I had no choice, and I found I had some amazing people in my life. Friends who are better to me and are there for me in a way no family member would ever be.

The other thing I wanted to say is pay no attention to people's timelines. Granted, my recovery from my various traumas was probably hindered by the fact that they all happened at once and kept happening, but the WORST advice I got was along the lines of "In a year (or however long) you'll feel great!" No, in a year I did not feel great, and I felt worse for having heard that because I wondered what was wrong with me that other people could recover from something that I could not. Take as much time as you need and don't beat yourself up for bursting into tears out of the blue on public transit for way longer than you should or whatever.

I'm so sorry you are going through this. I promise you can survive the unimaginable, and you can even be happy again someday.

Sorry this is so long and so general. I hope it helps in some way.
posted by tiger tiger at 7:51 AM on July 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am so sorry.

You might try going to a support group set up by hospice or your local hospital. There may be a bunch of other people who have very little in their lives aside from the sick family member. It happens a lot if they were a caregiver. And very often an illness fractures a family or reveals fractures so they are more or less in your position with regard to their remaining family.
posted by BibiRose at 8:11 AM on July 2, 2016

I lost every blood relative I had by the time I was about 27. Even if it feels like the pain and grief will destroy you from the inside out, it won't. It can fuck you up pretty bad, and I am glad you are in therapy, but you will see the other side of this. And while that side may seem like it will feel unmoored and lonely (and it will be), it will also be much easier to learn and start to let go of the pain and grief when the person to whom it is all attached is gone and somewhere they cannot suffer anymore. And that maybe not make it easier to deal with the emotions you have and will have, but at least make death a much more graspable thing than trying to understand it while also enduring the incredible hardship of watching someone you love die.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

I lost my dad to illness (cancer, but it wasn't terminal. He had a lot of health things going on) when I was 16. It was under really traumatic circumstances. We were really close. I was his favorite because he wanted a girl after having two boys-- he always saw the most potential in me, because in his eyes I was the most like him. I don't have a bad relationship with my mother, but she never 'got' me like my Dad did.

I will say that with prolonged illnesses, there's such a decline in comfort -- not only for the person who is sick but the people around them too. It's not just hard on them, it's hard to experience. This strong intelligent man who was my rock suddenly becoming too weak to even clean up after himself, to walk more than a few steps? It was shattering for him to be so weak and for me to watch this decline, and by the end of the journey, I found I was ready to let him go, because I didn't want him to suffer any longer. Sometimes there wasn't time for grief, because we were always dealing with 'stuff' constantly. Hospitals, doctors, more hospitals. Even his mental health. Our whole lives had become his illness-- by the end I didn't want that to be prolonged any more, not just for him, but for all of us-- for me, too. I just didn't want to remember 'his life' as 'his illness' and conflate the two any longer.

But at the start of his diagnosis, it was like staring into the abyss. It was terrifying. By the end, though, a makeshift bridge had been built across that chasm. We'd gotten across, and I knew he was ready to go, and we were ready to let go. I'm not sure how to explain it better than that, but, yes, it's possible to get through this period.

I also wondered how the heck I was supposed to survive without my Dad. I also thought that these things happened 'one day,' not today. I was angry. He was supposed to do so much. Write that book he always said he would write, hate my boyfriends, walk me down the aisle, and he never would. I wish that feeling stopped hurting but it never does. But it's survivable. I did it. Day by day. It's just, wake up hoping its a nightmare, live, breathe, rinse, repeat. Eventually, that dull tinge of dread in your heart fades away and you will live again. I mean, it's been 15+ years now, I still hold it in my heart sometimes-- because you never 'get over' it, but you do get through it.

When I was an angsty 16 year old girl, I had nobody to turn to, either. My family doesn't do grief well at all. So I went online. And what helped me come to terms with it all was BuddhaNet which is actually still around. Specifically, it was this document. I don't really identify as Buddhist, and some of the wording is a bit too religious for me, and yet... the writing on there helped me find an odd comfort and solace. Following Meditation texts in the library helped to calm me, too.

Have you looked at The Dinner Party as well? If you are in the US it might be worth looking in to, if not right now, maybe later when the time comes. I've never been, but I've heard good things about it. One thing I did learn from the deaths of my family and friends is to not be alone; to reach out and make new deep connections. This helped that feeling of, 'I'm lost without this person,' and helped me realize I was less alone than I thought.

Lastly, it's been a tough life for me, I won't lie. But I'm happy now. I have a good life, good people around me, and I'm really ok. And while I still miss my father, and always will, I don't think I'd be the person I am today without things going the way they did.

I hope this helps somewhat.
posted by Dimes at 9:24 AM on July 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I will have to take responsibility for her when he dies

No, no, no. No, you don't. All you have to do is take responsibility for yourself. It is 100% okay to make yourself the priority here. She is an adult and her decisions are her own, mental health issues or not.

I know you say you are fine with taking care of her and if you completely wanted to, that's one thing. But you say "I will have to". There is no universal requirement to take on the burden of someone, especially a parent who has never cared for you and especially a parent who refused to take care of herself.

Good luck to you. You will get through this by making yourself the priority. It's your turn. You are not being selfish to decide your life is your own and you are only going to take care of yourself. I'm very sorry you are dealing with this. Sending you good thoughts.
posted by Beti at 10:41 AM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find myself alive, despite the impossibility of living past his death. It hurts every day, but differently. Don't imagine the grief you feel now will be the grief you feel in a month or a year or two. Don't let CS Lewis scare you. It is not the same. It is not acute forever the way it is right now.

You can memail me if you ever need to talk about it. Forever, I mean, that offer stands forever.

Big, big hugs.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:23 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're stepping into the unknown and that's the scariest part. You can't envision yourself in the future but that's only because it's impossible to see around corners. You'll develop the coping skills as you go. You won't be perfect but you'll get through it. For your Dad's sake, as well as your own, take time away to enjoy your own life while he's declining. Find out what support is available and apply for it sooner than later.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:17 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You are experiencing anticipatory grief which is common and completely understandable. The problem is it sort of stops you from enjoying the time you have because you are hurting about the inevitable future death of your dad.

i dealt with the same problem when my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and found that a low dose of anti depressants and anti anxiety drug helped me tremendously. I am not saying you have to use these forever-but for me they helped me feel happiness in the time we had left and live in the moment. You will probably be able to leave them behind after he passes.

Other than that, try hard to live in the moment and not worry about the future. It may help you to find a grief therapist to talk to about your feelings. This is a hard time and it is so tough to know you are losing someone you love so much. be kind to yourself and accept that your feelings and fears are valid but you can only do so much.
posted by Izzi at 10:32 AM on July 5, 2016

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