I watched a part of my dad die, and it made me face my own death

Death is shitty.

I’m writing this from my dad’s house, sitting on his couch, feeling the weight of loss all around me. The love of my dad’s life, his partner and best friend, passed away unexpectedly recently.

My stepdad’s name was Dom. It’s still hard to wrap my mind around the past tense of his existence. In early August, I had been up to their house for a short visit. We were making dinner and talking about the possibility of taking a trip together, somewhere tropical and inexpensive, possibly the Dominican Republic.

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Dom had told me there was no way in hell he’d go back there, to his place of birth, because they weren’t accepting of homosexuals.

“Maybe Mexico,” Dom quipped, “but certainly not there. No, thank you.”

After a cocktail, Dom changed his mind. “I might go back,” he said. “It’s really beautiful there, and I could show you all the amazing markets from my childhood. They have so many ingredients that you’ll never find here in the U.S.”

Bryanne Salazar and stepfather
Image: Bryanne Salazar

When Dom passed away a month later, so did a part of my dad. He was empty the night we came home from the hospital, in shock and unable to comprehend what had happened.

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Denial came first. If we didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t real. The next stage was anger. Why hadn’t the hospital done more to save him? The third emotion, the one you won’t find on a pamphlet about death, was fear. How can he be gone? How will I go on without him?

I felt helpless at times. How could I reach through the ocean of loss that had ripped my dad away in its strong current? Each day was an experiment in firsts. I tried physical comfort, grasping his hands and rubbing his shoulders, embracing him whenever tears threatened to fall. He told me he didn’t like it, to stop.

I tried talking him through the pain, but the truth was: I knew nothing about how he felt. How could I? My husband was alive and well, sitting next to me, while his was not. My words were empty in his ears.

The only thing left for me to do, aside from just being there (something so important for the bereaved), was to tackle the mountain of paperwork and phone calls that need to be handled when someone dies. Somehow, each item I crossed off the list helped me process the pain of losing someone I loved, too.

First, I called the funeral home and made final arrangements for my stepdad. Next, I authorized the hospital to release his body to the funeral home. I sat down and, through emotional sighs and tear-stained lines, wrote Dom’s obituary. I searched through his pictures and found the one that captured his innocent, joyful spirit and would make people smile while reading of his death.

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I helped my dad fish through financial paperwork to know which bills were now his responsibility, and helped settle accounts that were soon to be due.

I filed the life insurance paperwork, signed my dad up for and took him to bereavement counseling (I highly recommend this for anyone who has lost a spouse), connected him with resources and services that could help during this transition, cooked him meals, cleaned his house and then, maybe most importantly, listened whenever he needed to speak, but didn’t offer solutions. How could I?

I didn’t pretend to know what he was feeling and I didn’t make the loss about myself. I reminded my dad that no matter how lonely he felt, he was never alone. It was all I could do.

Today marks three weeks since my stepdad took his last breath. I still imagine he’ll walk out of the bedroom in his fluffy white robe and grumble “morning,” before making himself his favorite English tea and bowl of oatmeal. I can still hear him laughing, sitting with my youngest son at his piano, teaching him to play.

Death is shitty. It takes those moments and puts a date on them, a stamp of finality. It leaves a permanent emptiness in those who were left behind.

It also reminds us that life is limited, and how important it is to have policies and papers in place for when we pass away. In the last few days, my husband and I have made sure to increase our life insurance policies, open investment accounts and file our advance directives and wills. When we’re young, we think we have time to take care of those things, but the truth is that we aren’t guaranteed another day. The worst thing we could do is leave our spouses and families without the means to live in our absence.

Talk to your family about what you want. Spell it out in no uncertain terms whether or not you want to be resuscitated, intubated, kept on life support, an organ donor, buried, cremated, etc. Have enough life insurance to pay off your home, your debt and provide your family with enough income to grieve without also having to figure out how they will survive.

And most importantly, don’t take anyone you love for granted. We always think we have more time, time for the trip, time for the phone call, time to say “I love you.”

When your time comes (and it will), don’t leave anyone wondering what could have been.


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