11 Lessons I Learned As My Father’s Caregiver

After being my dad’s caretaker for over a year–living with him for a couple of months, going to his house every day thereafter, medicating him, scheduling his appointments and taking him to them, cooking food to fit his dietary needs, trying to diminish his alcohol intake–there are many lessons, as I’m sure you could imagine, that I learned that I am eager to share with people. My father passed away on February 3, 2017.

1. Grief

To get the most cliche’ed one out of the way, it really is true: the grief comes in waves. I was pretty numb for the first week. The first morning that I woke up after dad’s passing felt a little empty, and I could feel a hole in the world–there’s no other way to put it—but otherwise it was a regular Saturday for the most part. But after the funeral, it really hit me.

I wanted to cry yesterday night at my a cappella practice because I realized I didn’t have to be in a rush to leave anymore to go to my dad’s house. I cried at Giant on Monday when a coupon printed out for Ensure, which I always bought for my dad to try and get his protein and weight in check (he liked the chocolate High Protein variety). I cried today at work when I realized it’s only (and already) been nineteen days since I lost my dad, and there’s the rest of my life to go knowing that I’ll never make new memories with or speak to him again. I’m sure I’ll still be crying about random things years from now. The grief and loss never really go away; you just learn to grow around it, as I learned from going through my cousin’s and uncle’s deaths a couple years ago.

2. Logistics

Note: I am not, in any way, an estate lawyer, and this is not intended to be taken as legal advice. This is just my personal experience.

Have a “Last Will & Testament” in place, all signed and notarized. Having a “Self-Proving Affidavit” is also useful; this would mean that the witnesses to the signing of the will do not have to be present when you file the will to be probated (i.e. to be validated and recognized by law/court at probate court, which is usually a division of your circuit court). In the will, you should note that the executor(s) has the power to sell real estate, if you own any property and if you don’t plan on specifying in the deed who the house should go to (i.e. in my dad’s will, it was a generic “divide my assets among my two children in equal parts” statement, but you can’t exactly divide a house in half). Also make sure that, if you appoint more than one executor, the co-executors can act independently of each other; explicitly state this fact in the will. The independence is never assumed or implied.

Due to this oversight, my brother and I must act in unison and can’t act independently — that is, both of us must be present at every interaction regarding our dad’s estate. Kind of inconvenient! If you intentionally do let co-executors act independently of each other, make sure that they trust each other. Also make sure you have passwords, PINs, safe combinations, and other such things accessible by someone you trust upon your passing. You may also want to consider putting someone’s name on your assets and certain liabilities–bank accounts, insurance, mortgages, titles–to avoid the administrative tasks of transferring things.

3. Attitude

Your attitude makes a world of a difference in the way you experience life, and for me, gratitude is the best attitude. I honestly think I’m doing as well as I am because of this. When my dad went into a coma during his last hospitalization, I had so many things to be angry and whiny about (at least, in my opinion). Instead, I did something that I remember seeing another friend do on Facebook, with the hopes that my friends, too, would feel inspired: I decided to start listing three things I was thankful for every day, rather than griping about the misfortunes I was facing. So, even though my dad was in a coma, at least we had access to health care that was helping to rehabilitate him, and palliative care to ease his pain. I also live in a time where there are apps to help me communicate with people across the world; I used WeChat to tell my brother to come back, and he did, and he was the one who was able to wake our dad up just by calling for him.

While I stayed overnight at the hospital for two weeks, I had blankets to keep me warm in the chilly room. Seeing my dad in his condition made me realize how much I take for granted the fact that I can walk and move freely on my own, that I can eat and drink with no restrictions apart from allergies. I also realize how fortunate I am to have a job that is so understanding of my circumstances and lets me telework or take off as many days as I need. As I did this daily exercise of gratitude, I realized just how much more stuff there is to be thankful for. From access to clean water (I mean, come on—I have enough water that I can let my shower “warm up” before I step in) to being able to watch my dad die a peaceful death (rather than a painful or sudden one), from shoes that protect my feet (no tetanus or abrasions on my feet) to decent weather on the day of my dad’s funeral (it could have been raining or snowing or freezing or even windier), it really is a “glass half full” mentality that is getting me through this. Let’s get this straight, though: just because someone has it worse does not mean you are not allowed to grieve. That’s like saying that because someone has it better than you, you are not allowed to be happy. By all means, grieve; Lord knows I have been.

4. Death is inevitable

Good or bad, rich or poor, royalty or peasantry, smart or stupid, healthy or not, we will all meet the same end. I suppose, then, that it’s really about who would want to come to your funeral to say goodbye. What community did you create in your life? Did you forge lasting bonds, or did you push people away? Were you kind and empathetic, or were you egoistic and bellicose? How did you participate in this shared experience of life?

5. Funerals are for the living

My brother himself did not even come to our dad’s funeral. He said they were pointless. “Why are you showing respect to a person only after they’ve already died? You should have had a meaningful relationship when they were alive, not after they’ve already died,” he would say. I understand that, as a pile of ashes, my dad may not be able to hear me as I mourn over him. I understand that if a god does not exist, then nobody will hear or answer my prayers. I understand that my dad’s spirit isn’t literally clinging to my arm as I walk through the rest of my life without him. But I was there to see the people who came out to support me, to grieve my grieving of him, and I take comfort in the fact that I am, indeed, not alone.

6. Accountability

You can only lead a horse to water. My dad was, for a vast majority of his life, an alcoholic (aren’t most Koreans, on some level?). I could keep replacing the soju in his bottles with water, do a sniff test of every liquid in the house, take away his driver’s license, take away his car keys, beg and plead with him to stop drinking…but he had a hidden stash somewhere I couldn’t ever seem to find. He would call a taxi to get to the ABC store. He would send for an errand runner to buy it for him. He would scream at me until I cried and let go of the bottle I was about to throw away.

I believe I did as much as I could in my own power, over my own agency, to stop him from abusing alcohol — but it was ultimately up to him whether he let the bottle touch his lips or not. A person has to want to change in order for them to change; a person has to be willing to accept help in order for you to help them.

7. Anger

Anger accomplishes nothing. At best, it will coerce or intimidate people into doing what you want them to. I know I’ve had anger problems, but I’ve started to take proactive steps towards ameliorating my temper issues, from going to therapy to reading Anger Management for Dummies. But at worst (and as is most common), it will break off once-meaningful relationships, deter people away from you, and really only hurt you in the end. It fuels the “fight” in the “fight-or-flight” instinct we get when we are confronted with a threat. We have evolved past being just animals of instinct. We are beings of higher sentience. Let’s act like it.

Sure, use the fervor to fuel you into sharpened decision making or light a fire for some passionate belief. But do not inflict your anger upon other people. It does not help the situation, nor does it help you or those around you. Also, if somebody doesn’t know something, don’t belittle them or get angry with them. Educate them. Your anger does not help them spontaneously learn things.

8. Caring too much vs. Not caring enough

In my opinion, it is better to err on the side of compassion and care than neglect. That is, it’s better to care too much than not care enough–especially if it ends up making a big difference in a life-or-death situation, or other drastic circumstance. I personally believe that the whole “you will regret what you don’t say more than what you do say” thing is really true. That’s why–especially as it seemed like dad’s death was getting more and more imminent–I started speaking my mind more, despite my fear of retribution (our family has never been affectionate, and me speaking my mind has almost always been met with some sort of punishment). He needed to hear this and that before I could no longer tell him.

He needed to know I forgave him along time ago for his wrongdoings. He needed to know I love him. He needed to know that I understood why he was the way he was. He needed to know that actions speak louder than words, and words can hit harder than fists. He needed to know that it is never too late, that even if he lives one more day, he can live that day right.

9. Self-care

This is something that took me a while to learn, only because I felt so guilty about learning it. It’s important to take care of yourself, too. As much as my dad needed my help, there were times when I needed to just take time for myself. Just one night here and there not having to go to his house so I can go straight to sleep at night instead of driving 25 miles to his house, one night here and there where I hung out with my friends or boyfriend, one night here and there where I was just at home by myself watching TV with my dog. It was for my own sense of sanity. I truly burnt myself out in the whole “set myself on fire to keep someone else warm” sense, and I was destroying and neglecting myself while I was trying to put his needs before mine. But I am human. I am a person too, and I need care, too.

10. Compassion

My dad led an unnecessarily painful life, and I attribute that to him being a broken person; he didn’t know how to function as anything more than a shell or a reflection of a “normal” person. He was an alcoholic, and he was abusive. He pushed many people out of his life. But people are not born broken. Something or someone breaks them along the way of life. I mentioned this in my eulogy, and I’m glad I did, because I was able to tell the people in attendance at my father’s memorial that if they are to do just one favor for me, it is that they live a life of healing in a world full of broken people.

Let’s get this straight: being broken does not reflect that something is intrinsically wrong with you. If anything, it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself stronger, like torn muscle. I’m not ashamed to say that I, too, have been broken in many ways throughout my short 26 years of life so far. But so far, I have also survived 100% of the worst days of my life. I have conquered, I have learned, and, most importantly, I have deepened my empathy for people.

11. Spirituality

I was a very, very devout Christian in my teenage years. Then, to be very honest, I took some epistemology and philosophy courses, and I became less Christian and more so agnostic/theist. I don’t believe there is absolutely nothing out there, but I also don’t believe as wholeheartedly in the Christian rhetoric anymore, especially with the picture of God that the Bible paints; how is a Perfect God so angry, jealous, temperamental, and steadfastly ignoring of our pain? And I know to the still-devout Christian, I sound like a typical believer-led-astray-by-Satan case, or maybe just someone who isn’t “listening when God speaks.” But I digress. Before my dad’s passing, I was ambivalent at best.

Now, I almost feel like I have no choice but to believe. Maybe it’s because I so strongly want to believe I’ll see my dad again someday. Maybe it’s because I want to know that we aren’t trying to live righteous lives all for nothing but secular consequences. Maybe it’s because I want to feel like I have a “purpose.” Maybe I because I refuse to believe that human beings are the end-all, be-all to intelligence and knowledge and the whole universe’s order. But my bottom line is this: losing a parent (or anyone close to you, really) shakes up your schema of the world. With such a loss, I think your mind actively works to try and make sense of the tragedy. Believe what you have to believe to get through it. TC mark

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