Dying with Dad, Part 2

by Jessica Graham

My teacher Shinzen teaches that mindfulness meditation has three parts: concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity, which all together lead to a reduction in suffering. But sometimes people have “freak-outs.” A freak-out is a state in which you lose the ability to concentrate and maintain sensory clarity. As a result, your equanimity falls apart, and you have a pretty good chance of suffering. In the next few articles, I’ll explore some of my top freak-out moments during the months before my father’s death— how I got through them and what I learned from them.

Unwelcome Houseguests

My dad loved to cook big meals for us. He liked to wear cooking outfits, like a funny hat, welding glasses, and an apron with chili peppers on it. He didn’t so much like to clean up after making his masterpieces, though when he got around to it, he had some crazy cleaning outfits too. He would let his apartment get pretty filthy before donning those outfits, though. As his alcoholism progressed, he liked cleaning up less and less. After a night at his house, your clothes smelled like a mix of rotten food, cigarettes and the water that collects in dirty dishes. When I watched the reality show “Hoarders,” it triggered a big emotional response.

As the cancer progressed, Dad spent more time in the hospital and his house, unlived in, would remain dirty for weeks at a time. During one of these periods, a rodent infestation began. When my dad returned home, heavily drugged and weak from chemo and surgeries, he couldn’t manage to get rid of his new furry housemates. He wouldn’t allow my sisters and I in and so we had no idea how bad it had gotten in there. It was only after we moved him into my mom’s house (once he needed continuous care) that we were able to get a look—and what we found was horrifying. There were rats and mice everywhere. They were coming out of the drop ceiling, crawling out of trash bags, jumping from cabinets, peeking out from behind huge stacks of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The piles of debris and trash made walking through the house like wading through a landfill teeming with mice and rats. Gross!

I don’t consider myself a squeamish person, but the sights, sounds, and smells were more than I could take. It was devastating to witness how my father had been living. I felt guilt, disgust and so much grief arising. I froze in the middle of the living room, and each time I spotted a rodent I let out a little scream. I couldn’t do anything at all, and was on the verge of a full-on freak-out.

My sisters went to work without me, clearing a path through the house and carrying out items to transport to our mom’s house. I ran outside, took a breath, and told my sisters, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this right now.”

In the past, I might have forced myself to go back in the house and push though my fear, but I’ve come to understand that sometimes it’s best to be gentle; pushing though something can be damaging and create trauma. I stayed outside, helped load the car, and employed the Focus In technique, exploring the emotional sensations in my body. Afterward, I continued to work mindfully with what came up that day, and the next time we went to my dad’s house, I was able to help finish the job. It was still difficult, but I successfully broke the experience up into manageable pieces and used it as an opportunity to grow.

Love and Care

Me and my dad at a peace march

As someone who always likes to be working at my edge, I spend a fair amount of time being uncomfortable. I’ve come, generally, to consider discomfort to be a good thing. These days, it’s just growing pains and well worth it. There are times, however, such as this Freak Out moment, when the most useful thing to do is walk away and create some space in which to work through what is coming up. On this path to self-discovery and self-deconstruction, it’s important that we treat ourselves with love and care. There are so many layers being uncovered, and it can be a bit shocking to the system.

Don’t be lazy, but take it at the pace that works for you. Working with a teacher will help youto understand that balance. Little by little, you will find that life is less troubling, and that you are gaining the ability to maintain equanimity in even the most challenging situations.

Read the full Dying with Dad Series

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