"Death and Its Aftermath" or "Surviving Grief"

Note:  This is a re-post from March 12, 2022, with some additional edits.

by Stephen Wirzylo

I realize it has been a VERY long time since I posted updates to America’s Canceled Highways (my previous site). In fact, when I look back, I realized my last post [there] was back in May of 2021. Nothing since. There’s obviously a reason for these sorts of things. In 2020 and early 2021 it felt like I was working my tail off during the pandemic, just so I could keep my head above water and stay busy. By April of 2021, it seemed like things were looking up for me and my family: my work schedule was settling down, which meant I would have a little more time to visit my parents in the Cleveland area. My mom and dad and I were fully vaccinated, and it seemed like we were about to turn the corner on the pandemic. I was feeling more hopeful than I had in a while.

Milton

Then summer came. By early July my family and I noticed that our older cat Milton was not doing well. He had been slowing down a little bit in recent months – he was 14 years old, after all. But by July I noticed that he clearly was not himself – he was eating very little, and he was very lethargic and withdrawn. He moved from spot to spot in the guest bedroom at my parents’ place, trying to get comfortable. We scheduled a visit to the vet, and the earliest they could see him was on August 5. We decided we would make him as comfortable as we possibly could in the meantime.

Milton relaxing in bed

On my next visit to my parents, I spent the night in the guest bedroom with Milton. I heard him growl a couple times during the night – I think he was in a certain amount of pain and discomfort. By morning I was feeling a little distraught. I then went to my backpack and pulled out a prayer card I had recently purchased from a religious gift shop that I had stopped at a day earlier. It was a prayer card that had immediately drawn my attention: St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer for sick animals. Seemed very appropriate, I thought.

When I took the card out of my backpack, I went back to the guest room, lay down on the bed, and recited the prayer on the card. It couldn’t have been more than two minutes when I had finished the prayer that I saw Milton get up from his spot on the floor, come up on the bed, nestled in beside me, and started rolling around like he was his old self. I don’t know how long it went on – maybe half an hour. His eyes lit up and he started interacting with me in a way that I hadn’t seen since he had gotten really ill. He eventually jumped off the bed and went back to his corner and withdrew again, but I am hard-pressed to think of an explanation for all this. Had I witnessed something extraordinary? Or was it all just a coincidence? Either way, I remember getting real emotional for a while whenever I recollected this.

The day came when my dad and I took Milton to the vet, and we found out that he was actually suffering from an extreme case of constipation. At that point we felt relieved and hopeful. Milton was admitted to the hospital, and treatment began. Sadly, some of the blockage escaped into his bloodstream, and he developed hypothermia and sepsis as a result. My dad went to the vet to say goodbye. Unfortunately I was back in Toledo at the time, and I told my dad I didn’t want Milton suffering a minute longer than he had to, hence my decision not to come over. I wonder if I made the right decision. Milton was put down on August 10.

I remember crying a lot over the next few months. Milton had been such a wonderful cat: loyal, loving, inquisitive, easy-going. It just broke my heart that he was no longer around. I do remember in the weeks during he was sick, and in the first few weeks after his passing, I remember seeing monarch butterflies everywhere, probably more than I had ever seen in my life. At one point in mid-November, as I was driving through Henry County, Ohio, I started crying again, and I said out loud: “Milton, I love you and miss you so much!” It was no more than half an hour after that, as I was driving along U.S. Highway 6, that I looked up and saw a sign as I crossed an intersection: “Milton Road”. I wonder what would have happened if I had turned off and gone down that road….

I had no idea at the time that this was just the beginning….

Mom

A couple weeks later, on December 1, my dad called to tell me that my mom had been admitted to Avon Hospital. He remarked that she had gone downhill the previous day: she was hardly eating or drinking anything, was sleeping almost the entire time, and when she was awake she was talking incoherently. My mom had been really ill for a long time: she was diabetic, and back in 2015 was diagnosed with early-stage kidney failure and cirrhosis of the liver. She was admitted to the ICU, induced into a coma, and put on a ventilator. I was able to come that day and get in for a visit, and I was hopeful she might pull through. That Sunday, I returned to Toledo, thinking that my mom might be getting better. She had briefly opened her eyes on Saturday and was initially responding well to treatment.

My dad called me again on Tuesday, December 7, with those dreaded words: “You better come.” I got back to Avon Hospital as quickly as I could, and I remember on the drive over just how horribly gray and barren and depressing the landscape was that day. My dad and I met with the head doctor of the ICU. We were told that my mom had had internal bleeding in one of her pancreatic ducts. The bleeding had stopped, but her whole body had gone into shock to compensate. As a result, Dr. Panthan told us, her body was destroying red blood cells faster than it could regenerate, and she was looking at multiple organ failure.

At that point, my dad and I were in no doubt about what should be done. Over the years, my mom had told us that she never wanted us to take extraordinary measures to save her life. And we realized she had virtually no quality of life at that point. We called my brother and my mom’s sister so they could say goodbye via telephone – my mom was unconscious so there was no way she could respond – and then we gave the medical staff permission to take out the ventilator and the other equipment that was keeping my mom alive. My dad and I inched closer to the bed – my dad holding mom’s left hand, and I holding her right one. I couldn’t help but take notice of how discolored her hand was – my mom always had an extremely fair, some would say pale, complexion, but the back of her hand was now an off-color reddish-brown.

My mom and dad on the first day of their marriage……..

And the last day………….

My dad and I waited with bated breath as the nursing staff removed the ventilator and the other equipment that was helping keep my mom alive. We had no idea how long she would last? Maybe a couple more hours? Maybe into the night? Actually, the wait turned out much shorter than we had anticipated. It couldn’t have been any more than a minute that my mom’s breathing ceased – there was absolutely no gasping or struggling. She went as quietly as any person possibly could have. We realized at that point that my mom’s life had been hanging in there by just a thread. I remembered that when I was asleep the previous night before my mom’s death, I was awakened to hear what sounded like three distinct knocks on a metal pipe. Had this been a sign as well? Was I being given a message that my mom’s death was imminent? I had no idea at the time, but I found out later that some people have recalled the old superstitious belief of “The Three Knocks of Death”. Again, I had no idea what I encountered that night. A benevolent (or possibly malevolent) spirit? My own fevered overactive imagination?

Dr. Panthan came into the hospital room at 6:25 p.m., and quietly told me and my dad that my mom “had gone to another world.” We sat in the room for half an hour after that, just sitting and talking. Then we realized that other patients in the hospital might very well be waiting for an ICU bed to open up, so we figured we best be on our way. I remember walking in the hospital parking lot out in the cold back to my car, the heavy weight of that moment resting on my shoulders. I don’t remember a whole lot over what took place the following two weeks – I do remember the extremely kind neighbors bringing food, people sending sympathy cards, going to the funeral home, but I don’t remember a whole lot else….

Looking back, I realize that my mom had overcome a lot with her own health. She had survived mono and a bad case of viral encephalitis when she was 19 years old, back in 1969. At the time she could hardly walk or talk. The doctors had told my grandparents hat she had a 70% chance of dying or being disabled for the rest of her life. She rallied and beat the odds. She struggled with back pain and chronic fatigue for many years, until she was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis in 2015. She was starting to show symptoms at that point, and the projected life expectancy for symptomatic cirrhosis is 1-3 years. My mom lived for 6 years. I thought when she went to the ICU that she might be able to defy the odds yet again, but I was sadly mistaken. Years ago, before she became very ill, my mom told me that she hoped that if she felt well enough, she could live to be 90. She fell 18 years short of her goal. Both her parents had outlived her in age; my grandfather had made it to 78, my grandmother to 85. I suppose I could look at the glass half-empty, but to look at it as half-full, I realize that my mom overcame much, and perhaps I should be more grateful that her life was as long as it was.

Carter

When I came back to see my dad on December 29, I noticed that something was not right with our dog Carter either. He would hardly eat anything, including his favorite dog treats. He was vomiting up everything, including water. He also had a difficult time getting to his feet with his back legs. My dad and I agonized over what to do. We called the vet and they gave us advice on what we might do, but Carter didn’t respond to any of it. On New Years Eve, my dad took him out for a ride in the car during the late afternoon. Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. When they came back, Carter just plopped down a few feet from the front door, not wanting to move. He started moaning and whimpering. “Bring him over to me,” my dad said as we sat on the sofa together, trying to figure out what to do. The vet was on reduced hours and operation due to the holiday, and we decided we would try to make Carter as comfortable as we could until we could take him in. Carter quieted down as my dad gently stroked and petted him. A couple hours later, my dad said his leg pain was bothering him, so I gladly took Carter and placed him in my lap. We decided that he would sleep with us that night so he wouldn’t have to be alone. We would call the vet again the next day.

Carter in his younger and healthier days…..

I remember Carter settled down in my lap, and as I petted him he seemed to settle down. I remember praying and telling him how much we loved him. As the evening wore on, his breathing became faster and more labored. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I saw my water bottle on the nearby table. I dribbled a few drops into his mouth at the time – I was afraid of pouring too much and risk choking him. Carter licked up the water. My jeans were wet from the water and his tongue, but I didn’t care in the slightest.

At 11:50 p.m., I saw Carter open his eyes, open his mouth, and arch his head backwards as he was lying on my lap. It was kind of hard for me to describe, but he had an expression on his face that I’m not sure I had ever seen before – he had this look of peace and serenity and, at the same time, of joyful excitement on his face. It lasted about a minute or so, and then I saw him bury his head in my lap. His breathing then slowed down, and then stopped. I broke down sobbing as I cradled him in my arms, loudly calling out his name: “Carter! Carter!” My dad and our younger cat, Bonnie, sat across from me on the couch, watching yet another member of our family leave their earthly life, 5 minutes before the start of 2022. Carter was such an easy-going and good-natured dog. He never lost his patience with us, even when there were occasional times we would get a little impatient with him. He didn’t have a mean or aggressive bone in his body. If anything, he wanted to be friends with everybody. He was so enthusiastic about all the little things in life. We humans, I think, could learn from that.

In the early months of 2021, I remember Mom telling me that she had something in mind for Dad when the time would come to say goodbye to Carter . “I have the perfect gift for your Dad when Carter is gone,” she told me. “It’s a picture frame that has words on it that say: Thanks for everything. I had a wonderful time.” At that point in time my mom thought she would outlive Carter, when Carter wound up outliving her, even if it was only by 3 ½ weeks. Carter had had a lot of health problems over the last couple years as well, including diabetes and severe cataracts. I wonder if my mom’s death was what finally pushed him over the edge. Perhaps he needed to go be with her, or maybe my mom really needed him. I just couldn’t get over that Carter was gone, too, after I barely had any time to process the loss of my mom.

Dad

I noticed that Dad’s breathing and mobility was getting worse after Carter passed. I asked him if I needed to call an ambulance or take him to an urgent care clinic. I noticed his belly was extremely swollen. My dad said he didn’t think it was necessary, although I could clearly see him struggling. My dad, however, has always maintained a calm and even stoic demeanor about life’s circumstances, including his own. He went to his doctor in January, the day after Martin Luther King Day. His doctor told him to go to the hospital. We dad went to the E.R. at Fairview Hospital, where he was admitted right away. Multiple liters of fluid were drained from his abdomen. His breathing and mobility greatly improved. A couple days later he was discharged and came home. Although I was greatly relieved, I remember feeling scared. Was my dad going to go next? And then would I be next? As of early March, there hasn’t been any more death in my family.  (As of April 30, 2022, this has still held up. *knocks on wood*)

Dad recovering in the hospital

Last summer, when I was emotionally distraught over Milton, I remember my mom telling me: “Stephen, you need to have more faith in the way the world works.” My mom was right. I’ve come to realize that in spite of all my professions of faith, in spite of all my interest in spiritual matters, in spite of all my years doing lay ministry within my church, I’m beginning to think that maybe, perhaps, I don’t have quite as much faith as I thought I did. Maybe I’m wrong. I know that I’m definitely not as strong and courageous as I would like to be. I’ve always been a crybaby. I realize that I had also been living in a state of denial and delusion, thinking that my mom and the pets were not as sick as they really were, that some new medications and/or treatments could turn them around.

My mom was no stranger to grief and loss, either. But really, who is? I find it fascinating that in our world, death and dying is still a taboo subject in many quarters, even though we pretty much all have to contend with it at some point. Recently I unearthed an audio recording of her and me talking with each other from 2005. There was something almost transcendent hearing my mom’s voice again, as I listened to her crying to me as she recalled the deaths of her own parents, just as I now find myself crying over losing her. At one point Mom says to me: “I had a feeling I wouldn’t be very good when my parents died. I was stronger than I thought I would be….but it did hit me hard.” It hasn’t been lost on me either that my mom died the same day (December 7) as her maternal grandfather, who she was close to, 59 years later.

I realize I’m not the only one who has dealt with multiple losses, and there are other people in the world who are dealing with even more than I am. One of the women at the church I work at, Crystal, lost both her mother and her father in early 2020, only to have her husband die in front of her at a rest stop on Christmas Day while driving home after visiting family. A co-worker at another job I had, Chrissie, lost her mother and father a few months apart in 2020 – they were both in their early 60s – only to be followed by the death of her 47 year old brother last year.

When you lose a loved one, especially multiple loved ones in such a short period of time, their absence doesn’t necessarily feel like a void – as the author of one of my books on dying and grieving has stated, the loss(es) feel more like a massive earthquake, and you still feel the major aftershocks in the weeks and months afterward. As others have mentioned, you start to believe that everyone’s life is inherently fragile and that everyone you know is on the imminent verge of death.

Some days it just feels like my brain is broken, and I still haven’t put all the pieces back together, months later. Some nights I toss and turn, unable to get into a comfortable sleeping position, and then I start feeling pains in my chest. Maybe my heart is broken as well. Other days it has felt like I’m living in a bad dream that I simply can’t wake up from. I remember many a morning in the weeks afterward where I would wake up with this sense of dread and terror in the pit of my stomach after experiencing everything that had happened in the previous months. Thankfully, these symptoms have alleviated somewhat.

To paraphrase a line from the movie “No Country for Old Men”: “This world is hard on people.” An untold number of us have dealt with unimaginable hardship and loss over the last couple years – it makes no difference what your skin color, politics, religious beliefs, geographic location, or whatever your work is. There’s no question that life has been very hard on a very large number of people. Whether it’s losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing homes, losing your health….as I write this, war continues to unfold in Ukraine, with untold numbers of people having their whole lives uprooted, upended, shattered.

If you, dear reader, have read this far, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m sure that life has handed you more than its share of stresses, losses, and disappointments to you, especially over the last two years. Know that you are not alone.

As for this site, if I can regain the mental clarity to continue on, you might see more posts here at some point in the future. I just don’t know yet. I want to thank all of you, dear readers, for your comments and insights. They have not gone unnoticed. I also, from the bottom of my heart, want to thank all the staff at the Cleveland Clinic’s Avon and Fairview Hospitals and Avon Lake Animal Clinic for doing everything they could for me and my family.

I also want to thank ALL my family and friends and neighbors who have provided support to me and my dad during this extremely difficult time (I don’t want to start naming people because I know I’ll leave someone out!) If it weren’t for all of you, I don’t know if I would still be here.

And to Mom, Carter, and Milton: I hope you know that you are all deeply loved and deeply missed. I hope you’re all having a wonderful time, wherever you are.

Steve

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