I have a recurring dream of my father “faking” his death. I’ve been having it for years now. My father died in June of 2000 but some part of me must not believe it on some level.
Recently my sister, daughter and I reminisced about the moments before his death. It is something we do every once in a while, always saying the same things, perhaps each time we tell it, we attempt to make sense of it a little more.
We talked about how each us dealt with it differently, and what the hardest part was for each of us. I remember crying only twice, once when I gathered up his things minutes after his death in the hospital room and once at the burial. The rest of the time I was stoic, refusing to allow emotion to come up.
I remember spending years avoiding the grief.
My fathers death was somewhat sudden in the sense that he became ill and within a week he was gone. He was 64, and a few days from retirement. We hadn’t thought much about not having him around. We knew it would come but we had no way of anticipating how quickly and early it would come. He had plans you know.
I’ve been curious about this dream, and how it seemed like some part of my subconscious was still in shock and disbelief about his death. When Carolyn Elliott from Awesome Your Life offered to do a little dream interpretation, I jumped at the chance to get another perspective on my recurring dream. I’m going to share with you the moments before my father’s death and how I have been awed and also jarred by those moments. And then I’m going share Carolyn’s take on the dream.
First let me start by saying that I have always believed in an afterlife but one can never be completely sure and having chosen to walk away from my religious upbringing to a more spiritual approach to life, I’ve sort of been in this limbo about what I actually believe in. Not that spirituality would take me away from believing in an afterlife, but being in a kind of “not sure place” about what I believe in..left me feeling confused..My father on the other hand was a religious man who never pushed his beliefs on me or anyone, but was deeply devoted to his God.
He started feeling ill weeks before he ended up in the hospital. He was acting strange, uninhibited, his driving was off, he was super happy, overly joyous.
By the time we took him to the emergency room (he didn’t like doctors and rarely went) his stomach was distended and his eyes and skin were yellowish in tone. They kept him that evening, and he seemed out of it even on the first night. He was sleepy and he never really did come back. He went in on a Sunday, and was out of it for the whole week, would mumble under his breath here and there but that’s it. By the following Sunday he was gone.
I never got to speak to my father again. I sat with him everyday in the hospital, but the next time he would try to speak to me on the day of his death, he would be talking gibberish, his tongue thick, his eyes wide, frantically trying to tell me something. My heart broke as I tried to understand him. I just kept saying, it’s okay, I know, I know. My heart breaks even now thinking about how much he wanted to speak but couldn’t, how much I wanted to understand but couldn’t.
He was healthy one minute, walking around, working, planning retirement and now according to the science of it all, he was septic, ammonia eating at his brain, his liver failing. He was being poisoned from the inside. He had started feeling depressed as his retirement neared and was prescribed Paxil. With a failing liver which he didn’t know about, that happy drug was going right into his system, intensifying its effects. It was the first sign something was off and then came the yellowing of his skin and the distended belly. Later we discovered, my dad had undiagnosed hepatitis for forty years from his early years as a drug addict. 40 years of no drinking, no drugs, graduated from Columbia University, became a therapist, and beloved man, and dying as a result of a life he no longer led, a personal demon he had conquered. It all felt a little unfair.
The day of his death I was called at work and told that his end was near. I rushed there, my husband at the time dropped me off because he had to take his daughter to the airport and so for that first hour or so I was alone with him. He tried speaking to me, he seemed frantic, but then quieted down and went to sleep. My sister, stepmother, and daughter were on their way. My stepmother’s new husband (my dad and her were divorced years earlier) went to get my daughter and my sister and stepmother arrived.
My sister sat on one side of him and I on the other. His breathing was getting labored. We told him to hold on for Jess, my 13 year old daughter…she was on her way. He had raised her with me as I was a teen mom. Her first 8 years of life we all lived together and to her he was her father figure. To him she was his beautiful angel. We asked him to wait and he did. Within minutes of her arrival he began to take his leave.
The moments before his death were pretty strange and beautiful.
A man who barely lifted his head up all week, took both of our arms and lifted them up as if offering us up to his God. It was something I had seen growing up in a religious environment. People raising their arms in worship, but here he was lifting our arms up, way up. I could hear my stepmother’s voice, saying, “wow, look at that.”
He put our arms down and looked off, staring at something we could not see. His eyes much wider and more alert than before. We kept looking in the direction of his very fixed gaze. And then, he did perhaps the most miraculous thing of all…he smiled. Not just any smile, a big, baby like, gleeful wide smile as he looked in the distance. We could feel what was happening and in a room full of people with varying beliefs, we all knew something was there for him, we all knew he was seeing something we could not see, we all knew he was saying goodbye when he lifted our arms up, perhaps placing us in God’s hands. I don’t know, but we knew something beyond us was in that room that day.
And when he smiled like that for what seemed like several seconds, my stepmother said sweetly, what do you see? And someone I don’t know who, as no one in the room was religious or had ever spoken of these things, someone said, angels. He then closed his eyes, took one really long breath in…the last long breath that is usually followed by a very long gap, and then one or two shorter breaths. The dying breaths.
And then he was gone.
Someone came in and offered their condolences and told us to take our time. And we stood around for a few moments and then I began to gather his things, his watch, his ring, his clothes, his underwear and tube socks and just like that his life ended and our lives as we knew it, ended as well.
Just like that, the man I had known as Dad, the man who was the only parent I truly ever had, was gone.
My father paid for his own funeral. Yes he was like that. So we didn’t have to worry. We held a wake in his favorite church, and buried him. And I went on. I did very little grieving. Over the years I have dreams of him being alive, faking his death, me being angry and relieved that it wasn’t true, him looking guilty and ashamed, our relationship being strained.
And so that is what I shared with Carolyn and this an excerpt from her response:
“If it were my dream, I might examine those feelings of shock, betrayal and anger on at least two levels: 1) do those feelings correspond to any thing my father may have done in waking life – i.e., did he ever shock or betray me? 2) is it possible that those feelings of shock and betrayal could also be my surprise and disorientation about being shown something about life & death that I couldn’t previously see or access? “
It was the second perspective that really jumped out at me. It made me think about the shock of having experienced such a spiritual experience and having no way of processing it afterward. I think it was so big, but because I was dealing or not dealing with my father’s death, I had no time to process the fact that I think I had witnessed some version of my father going toward the light right before my eyes. Yes, I do believe there is a part of me that is still shocked about his death, and my feelings of betrayal by my Dad for not rescuing me from my mother early in my life, may play a part in the betrayal in my dreams, but for me it was this spiritual experience that was perhaps the most shocking for my human brain. When I read these words by Carolyn Elliott, “surprise and disorientation about being shown something about life and death that I couldn’t previously see or access”
I said, YES. That’s it. Right there.
Those moments were so surreal… how he seemed to wait for Jess and left moments later. How his soul, stronger than his body, seemed to take over in those last few moments to hold our arms up. In many ways, although I didn’t see “angels” or spirits, I could see them through his eyes. I could feel the presence of a spiritual world like I had never felt before or since. Doctors and scientists will explain this very differently, perhaps come up with reasons for his sudden strength, perhaps even explain away his smile as not being a smile at all, but I think I’ll bank on my own instincts, and experience of actually being there.
I think I’ll choose faith this time around.
This strange and beautiful feeling followed us and stayed with us for hours afterward as we sat in the lobby of the hospital waiting for my husband. We were laughing, we were feeling something strange for people that had just witnessed a death of a beloved and we talked about it. We asked out loud, “what is happening to us?”, as we giggled and teared up and laughed. We wondered what came over us, perhaps it was the knowing of something beyond our mortal selves that gave us joy. Perhaps it was knowing that our beloved had passed on and was reclaimed by something that made him smile one of the most beautiful smiles we have ever seen. I could down in the lobby. I can’t explain it, but there was a lightness around us. I felt light.
I want to die like that.
And I know not everyone gets to die like this, for some of us it is alone, or tragic, leaving our loved ones reeling, but grief is grief, and while my fathers death was strangely beautiful, I still miss him just like anyone else. I still smell him sometimes, I still wonder what it would be like if he were here, I still long to have him tell me, “helloooo” is in his unique intonation, or to hear him say, “sofer” (sofa), or “soder” (soda) or “very nice” for almost everything I showed him.
Even just writing this helps to relieve some of the shock of those moments, helps me to grieve a little more 12 years later (I stopped writing to cry and sit with my sadness), just writing this and sharing it with all of you helps me to reclaim those moments for myself as gifts, as grace, as evidence of the presence of the Divine, as evidence of my father’s love for us.
Thank you with my whole heart for listening.
Note: I’ve been thinking and I totally could be off here, but I wonder about those of us who left this earth in other ways, perhaps not surrounded by loved ones, perhaps in tragic scary ways for us…I wonder if they are also smiling as they go toward the light, but most of us didn’t get the chance to see it.
Perhaps we were not there physically, perhaps they died in front of us as the paramedics tried to revive them, or lay in a hospital bed for way too long and left us during the night as we slept. I wonder if I just happened to be there, he just happened to show us but others experience the same and may not be able to show us. I don’t know. I would hope in every death, they are surrounded by us even if we are not physically there, they feel us and our love for them and something purely magical and divine arrives to take them home and that they smile, a big baby smile and let go. I’m going to hold the faith that this is what happens when our beloveds leave even if we don’t get to see it.