What to say when someone dies
Josh Neufeld chronicled his father’s (Diet) final days of his battle with cancer.
In doing so he stumbled upon a passion project once Diet passed on which I have been grateful to add my own story to… How Do I Grieve
Josh had been able to share and document many stories since that time, and below is a story of his own.
In 2015 death took my dad rather quickly. When they found the cancer, it had already grown into a chicken egg-sized tumour on his pancreas and an ostrich egg-sized tumour on his liver. Diagnosis to death was 4 days shy of two months. I’m grateful to come from a close family, and those 2 months were filled were conversation, reckoning, bewilderment, sadness, strangeness, anger, fear, and monumental moments.
For some time, the chatter amongst my sisters inevitably returned to the question, “How did we get here?”. I struggled with that question. It was doing little to help me navigate, understand and cope with the impending death of my father and best friend. As I began to think about it, I began to write an email to my 3 sisters, mother and father. At this point in my dad’s journey, he had not yet been refused chemotherapy, and a flicker of hope lay on the horizon. I wrote the email below in this context, as a way of spilling my thoughts, and managing the emotional stress we were all under at the time. This is, life is.
How did we get here? Life brought us here. And it hurts, and it’s sad, and it’s unfortunate, and its sucks. But what else has life brought us? It’s has brought us abundance. An abundance of love, an abundance of support, an abundance of caring people, an abundance of emotion, and an abundance of strength, in the form of a man, who staring down the barrel of a gun, continues to view life with grace and vivaciousness.
I feel sad for Diet, because his spirited character and animated personality, will no longer be able to participate in the world, despite an unwavering desire to do so.
I feel sad for Diet, because he is a teacher and a man of seemingly infinite knowledge and wisdom, and he will no longer be able share that with the world.
I feel sad for my mother, who desires companionship more than anyone I know, and who may lose her rock, her mule, her partner, her handyman and her most intimate of companions.
I feel sad for my mother, whose expectations for the closing chapter on her life may not be met.
I feel sad for my sisters who may lose their original guardian and protector.
I feel sad for my sisters, who want so badly for their children to know him, and experience his depth of character.
I feel sad for myself, who may lose my anchor and male counterpart in a house made up of women.
I feel sad for myself, who may lose my teacher, my father and my friend.
But most of all, I feel gratitude.
I feel gratitude for having Diet. A man whose strength and quality of character helped build the quality of family we have today.
I feel gratitude because life has given us this time. Whether 3 months, 6 months, 6 years or 30 years, the moment will be hard, but I’m thankful for whatever time we have. Time to soak in every ounce of goodness in Diet. Time to marinate in every single difficult, joyful, sorrowful, enjoyable, painful and comical moment, situation and emotion together.
I’m grateful that we get to share those moments with Diet, who despite the constant pain and the cancer flowing through his blood, can still be the silly gregarious goof we know and love.
I’m grateful for the perspective gained through this process. Especially from Diet, whose strength of character and wisdom has cultivated an attitude towards death that can only be described as inspiring, and is deeply comforting in what feels like mental and emotional mayhem. True to form, despite being in the process of meeting his mortality, he is still a teacher and guardian to us all.
So thank you Dad, for being the best father a son could ask for, the best father your daughters could ask for and the best husband and companion a wife could ask for.
To me, the question isn’t how did we get here? Life is.
We are here and this is our new reality. How we respond, how we react and what do we focus on is the question that helps me. I have not yet given up hope.
As we’ve discussed, everyone responds differently. Although it looks bleak, I refuse to give up hope until it becomes unbearable to Diet, and he decides it’s time. And if that time comes, it will not be giving up, it will be acceptance that life is, and we will all move forward, with gratitude and grace.
If we thought our family was strong and special before, this has brought it to a whole new level. The fact I was born into this family, and I have the privilege of calling you all my family is something I wake up grateful for every morning.
So thank you, to all of you, for being you, and for us being us. *insert poop joke here*
With unwavering strength and resilience,
Your son and brother
The day following his response to this email, my mom rushed him to emergency for stroke-like complications. He never left. Three days later, he was denied chemotherapy and moved to the palliative care ward. 16 days after he died. I began to document those 2 weeks at the hospital.
Before we knew my dad was sick, I thought about a photo project around death and loss. My dad and I had discussed it, and he came up with the title “Meeting Mortality.” Little did we know, he would soon be the subject.
I photographed the last 19 days of his life. When I shared our story on my website, many people reached out to me and shared their own stories. Hearing the stories of others made me feel less alone in my grief.
I came to realize that people suffer alone in their grief because death and loss is a taboo subject. I wanted others to share in the same comfort I felt when people shared their stories with me.