Friday, January 3, 2014

10 Things I'm Learning About Death and Grief.

"Grief" Self-portrait by Michelle Starrs assisted by Joseph Starrs
December 5th 2013

 Almost 8 weeks ago my Dad passed away. 

 This explains my absence from blogging. 

After years of a mysterious illness, best described as a mix between 

And eventually labeled as a "Unique Case"...

My dad passed away on November 11th 2013

After years of maintaining and surviving one new symptom after another with the help of my selfless mom, my dad went from shuffling, chuckling and enjoying life, to death, in a matter of days.
Hospice was in my parents' home for a week. My dad was in a hospital bed for less than that. 
I always knew he would die. I never expected it to be so soon or so quickly. I didn't know what to expect, no one did really. 

I had the honor of being with my parents and helping with his care the last 5 days of my dad's life and the week following. Together with the help of dozens I was able to plan his funeral. I learned a lot and expect the learning to continue.
I want to share some of those things with all of you. 

#1-Help or Hurl
I learned this one quick. The first night I was at my parents was pretty shocking. My mom and I were up all night trying to calm him. He was supposed to be sedated but was still very restless with a burning fever.  My mom suggested I take a turn to get some rest, but I soon found that if I wasn't actively helping, the room would start to spin and I would be choking back vomit.
After he passed away, I didn't stop helping for longer than a few hours to get some sleep or a quick shower, during which I gagged and dry heaved.  I was blessed to be in a situation that my husband and friends back home were able to hold down the fort. My siblings had to go back to their homes to gather their families before the funeral. Each sibling was so helpful, sending pictures, coordinating presentations and doing more behind the scenes work than I probably even know about. The efforts put forth by Uncles and Aunts and cousins and friends and co-workers and beyond was the only way anything was able to happen.

#2- I was Prepared
God knows me personally and loves me. The past few years have been sort of frustrating sometimes. The timing of things has not been how I wanted. I am a planner, big time, but everything I have wanted to happen on my schedule just hasn't. I was expecting to graduate a semester sooner, the Mister was supposed to start graduate school a few months ago, I was supposed to have had another baby by now, I didn't even expect us to still live in the same town we have ended up living.  All the military changes and training that the Mister has been subject to has always been an unknown. But I see now that I was being led down a path of life that allowed me to be with my family as my dad passed away. Every day more things come to light, testifying of my Heavenly Father, my God, who knows best how to console my heart. 

#3-Social Media is a Good Thing
I know some people are big-time TMIers on Facebook and I have rolled my eyes more than 100 times while scrolling through the newsfeed, but Facebook was a wonderful tool during the week preceding my dad's funeral. Information was able to be shared all over the world and people who wouldn't have heard about his passing were able to attend.  But what surprised me the most was how helpful the comments, messages and even "likes" were to me. I always thought it would be disingenuous of me to reach out to someone I haven't talked to in years during their time of stress or grief. I was wrong. It didn't feel that way to me at all. I was overwhelmed with the response to my few posts on Facebook. At night when I can't fall asleep, even still, I read the messages and comments and scroll through and read the names of the "likes". It actually really really helps. The weeks following my dad's funeral I was trying to catch up and graduate and asked for encouragement on Facebook more than once. My friends delivered and I love you all for it. 

#4-Death is Expensive and Meticulous
I won't go into specifics but the figures and dollar signs and zeros and paperwork and signatures and phone calls and on and on and on seriously gave me a simultaneous head ache and anxiety attack. For the sake of your loved ones, have as much done as you can. My parents did a great job with lots of preparation and it was still really taxing ( pun intended...)
Have a plan and have insurance.

#5-It's Okay that I Lost My Cool Once
I made so many phone calls those 12ish days I was home. When I first arrived and my dad was alive but his condition was really bad, my mom asked me to call all his different doctors and update them. Happy to do it, mom. This was on a Friday I made all the calls. One place didn't get back to be until after he had died. We had already spoken to that doctor, directly, about some other issues, but one of the nurses was calling me back from the message I had left several days earlier. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello?
Nurse: Hi this is so and so and from doctor blah-blah and we're just returning your call. It says here that your dad isn't doing too well?
Me: Actually he passed away. 
Nurse: (Gasp!) Oh my gosh! What happeeeeened????? (imagine the tone of a total airhead idiot and she stretched the syllable), he died. (my tone here was suggestive of her complete incompetence at the English language and serious lack of tact) And our attorney has already been talking directly to doctor blah-blah so if you want any more details you are going to have to talk to doctor blah-blah. (this was said with a pretty superior tone, if not somewhat threatening)
I hung up and was super pissed. 

This leads nicely to my next point

#6-Any Feeling or Action is Acceptable
Crying? Laughing? Pissed off? Sad? Dancing? Remembering you need to buy some milk? Wailing? 
Check, check, checkity-check, check, check.
During the planning of the funeral I stayed so busy and only allowed myself to feel the grief while I was in the shower and while I was alone in bed at night. At the end of a meeting with my parent's attorney and also longtime friend, he kindly pulled me aside and let me know how impressed he was with my efforts, but to be aware and careful of the crash that was coming once things calmed down. So very considerate of him to say to me. And also very insightful.
When I got home I realized I had been running away from feeling grief for very long because I was very very afraid of it. I have clinical depression and anxiety, but for the past year I have had it under reasonably good control. I was afraid that feeling grief would send me into another episode and I just didn't want that to happen. 
After just a few days home I decided a trip to my therapist was in order. I have gone to counseling off and on for two years and have found it beyond helpful. During this visit we discussed at length the difference between grief and depression, specifically to me. Anything I feel is fine, unless any of the triggers we discussed during therapy manifest. Grief comes in waves and the best thing to do is let it wash over me and ride it out. 
Most of the time I am OKAY until suddenly I am just NOT OKAY and whatever blubbering comes out of me... I just have to let it happen. Like the other day I ran into a friend who had lost a loved one and we were both Christmas shopping on our own and I practically bumped into her before I saw her. I hadn't seen her since my dad had passed away and it just set me off. There I was, in the middle of a book store trying to quiet my hysterics because I knew people were looking at me. It was kind of terrible but also really healing at the same time. I guess that is what grief is. 

#7-Viewings are Weird
I know, terribly insensitive of me but the whole thing was weird. As I stood in what felt like a reception line with my siblings and our spouses and my mom, like some parallel universe reception, I hugged and comforted dozens of crying faces who streamed into the room and introduced myself to people who didn't know me or hadn't seen me since I was a little kid, my face molded into a greeting, attempting a convincing facade. Only one visitor outside of my family brought any comfort to me. 
But I accept that it is a tradition, however odd. My dad didn't look like himself at all and I felt no connection to his body at all. I did love the display of his personal items and memorabilia around the room. My dad lived such a varied life. It's really wonderful to me. 

#8-Children are Insightful But it's Still Hard
Sunshine was 4 1/2 and the Bird almost 3. We told them that Grandpa Dan had died, that he lives with Heavenly Father, and we miss him and we are sad but we know we will see him again. Sunshine was so tender, like he always is, that sweet boy.  He cried and wanted to call me on the phone right then. We cried on the phone together and he told me he missed Grandpa Dan and he was so sad. Something that didn't cross my mind was to talk to the kids about Grandpa's body. 
The Bird said, "Grandpa is asleep in a box?" 
And at the cemetery, Sunshine said, "We're putting the box in the grow a Grandpa tree?" They still ask me questions about it. 

#9-Friends are Angels
Not only did my friends take meals to my family while I was gone, they did and still do so much more. After the Mister and the kids joined me for the funeral, my friends cleaned my entire house. Like scrubbed and did laundry and dishes and toilets and more than I like to admit. The house was a wreck, big time, especially since things had been so busy for our family the past couple weeks. When we returned late at night after so much stress and travel and just completely drained... our house was spotless, dinner in the fridge and a beautiful floral arrangement. Like seriously stunning. I started crying and couldn't stop. 
Since then I have had basically non-stop kindness from my community and church and my friends.

#10-God Continues to Guide
Yes, I was prepared for this experience. But God has remained by my side. I feel his influence and love, as well as the saving power of the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, who atoned for my sins and pains. My life has been a charmed one that allows me so much happiness and grace. 
I still have a long road ahead of me. I still wake up, and have to remember all over again that he is actually gone. I still cry and laugh and feel so deeply the life around me, that the emotions of that day can extend to the fullest capacity in my heart for the rest of my days. He will always have just died. I love my dad and miss him always.  

Thanks for listening to part of my journey. 

Love From StarrsTown


  1. This post was lovely. I admire your strength! Death is something that terrifies me, I know it shouldn't but it does. I think you're wonderful. I think it's wonderful that your friends in town have been so supportive and helpful. I am so sorry for your loss. I have been thinking of you and I will remember you in my prayers.

  2. You are amazing to write and share your story. Your Dad would be so proud of you! You are a very strong women and I know your Mom really appreciated you being home with them. I have been thinking about you guys often and walk by your parents home and miss seeing them. You have been on my heart! Your Dad was a very lucky man to have you as a daughter! Stay strong, Cry when you need to and lean on your family and friends. We love you and your sweet family and will miss your Dad so very much. Let us know where your Mom is now. Hugs to you~

  3. AmThis Post Was So Nice To Read. Thank You For Sharing This Life Expierance With Your Readers. It Brought Up Several Points That I Didnt Think About Having To Face. You Were So Strong And inspiring. Thank You For Your Example! I Am So Glad That Friends In Town Steped Up and Took Such Great Care Of You! Wish I Could Have Been Closer To Help And Give You A Hug!

  4. Michelle how I love you. Thank you so much for sharing these very personal feelings/experiences. And I loved all the pictures of your dad. Even though I don't know him, I know he must have been amazing since you are so amazing.

  5. What a beautiful tribute to your Mom and Dad. We too have felt the loss of your father. What you have written here will always be a healing tool for you and your family throughout the rest of your life. It's so important to remember those details. May our Heavenly Father continue to bless you and to wrap his arms around you and those you love. Candice's Mom

  6. Beautiful, Shelly, thanks for writing this. Being there at the funeral (I totally agree about viewings, btw) I really felt a sense of pride that I am part of Dan's family and that we have such a strong heritage. His personal history was inspiring and seeing the love that he and your mom carefully cultivated through their life together was heart-warming and beautiful. I'm grateful that I have an uncle to be proud of. His goodness is a legacy to continue. I love you, cousin.