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Father’s Final Words Not the Last Word

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Psychotherapist Kevin Anderson offers advice to S&H readers. “As professionally prepared as you were for your father’s dying process, there are no credentials or letters after our names that can fully prepare us for losing a loved one.”

During the last two weeks of my father’s life, I took a leave from work and was with him constantly. Dad was grateful for my presence, referring to me several times as his “right-hand man.” Near the end, I stepped out of the room to talk with a sibling for a while. When I came back, Dad, with a look of deep disappointment in his eyes, said: “You left me!”

He died during the night, so those ended up being his last words to me. I’m finding it hard to accept that I tried to be so present during his dying process and now am left with those difficult final words. How do I get some resolution with this?

Kevin: Thank you for your letter and for our ensuing email exchange. As soon as I read your father’s last words, the part of my brain that is addicted to playing with words lit up.

I wondered what would happen if you allowed your father’s final three words to be the beginning of a reflection rather than the last word on your relationship with him. In our email exchange, I learned that your relationship with your father was essentially positive. He had coached you and your siblings for many years and modeled a positive work ethic and dedication to family. I suggested you try extending “You left me!” into “You left me / no doubt of your love for me.”

Already something has shifted just by adding that second line. I’m delighted you took up my invitation to create a nested meditation by extending the piece to a third line, and then a fourth (see bottom). I’ve found that an open, playful approach with words often leads to insight or resolution that is challenging to find with the logical mind.

You also told me that you left a corporate executive position after 25 years to pursue a calling to become a hospice chaplain and spiritual director. This required you to embrace a different way of being a man than your father had shown you. We agreed that his disappointment at your brief absence in his final hours was actually a sign of how much your steady presence had meant to him. Your capacity to bring that kind of presence had been honed in years of being present to hospice patients and spiritual direction clients.

As professionally prepared as you were for your father’s dying process, there are no credentials or letters after our names that can fully prepare us for losing a loved one. The man who had coached you in baseball threw you a curveball with those last words! Likewise, I’ve been humbled repeatedly to realize that being an expert in mental health and relationships does not give me a free pass to perfect mental health or fully functional relationships. We all get our turns at dealing with the inevitable difficulties of being human.

At our best, we are spiritual alchemists who convert our leaden sufferings into the gold of compassion. I trust that the two weeks being with your father at the end will deepen your presence with other families going through losing a loved one.

The nested meditation you wrote shows that we are free to frame painful circumstances, thoughts, or words in ways that do not lead us into depression or anxiety. This is the core idea of cognitive therapy, the most researched approach to working with human beings’ propensity for struggling with difficult thoughts and emotions. Writing a nested meditation is a creative cognitive therapy process that can be a bit like aikido. It lets us absorb a reactive thought that initially attacks our sense of inner peace and then flip it into something that goes deeper.

An open, playful approach with words often leads to insight or resolution that is challenging to find with the logical mind.

When we are stressed, our initial thoughts often present themselves as the last word on the situation. If we lose a job we might think: I failed. But we could choose to pause and add to that: I failed / to find my authentic self in that work.

After a string of painful breakups, it would be easy to think: I’m done with relationships! But it’s possible to let the initial thought go deeper: I’m done with relationships / determining my self-acceptance and joy.

It’s common in meditation training to imagine thoughts and emotions as clouds floating across the unchanging blue sky of our awareness. We’re supposed to just notice them and let them go, but sometimes I like to play with them the way I play with cloud formations. Thinking of thoughts as clouds just now made me remember the Wicked Witch of the West writing “SURRENDER DOROTHY” with her broom in the sky. Too bad Dorothy didn’t know about nested meditations! She might have extended the witch’s words into something less scary: SURRENDER DOROTHY / TO FINDING YOUR TRUE HOME WITHIN. Ah, I guess this makes it clear that I’ll never write the script for a classic movie!

Thanks for granting permission for me to share your meditation with the readers of Spirituality & Health. I’m glad you found a way to hold your father’s final words as a gift. I love how the second stanza of your piece can

be heard both as your father’s words to you and yours back to him. Your reflective writing process just might help others see how suspending our logical minds and playing with words can let things shift in surprising ways.

“You left me!”

You left me
no doubt of your love for me.

You left me
no doubt of your love. For me your last days were grace-filled.

You left me
no doubt of your love. For me your last days were grace. Filled am I again with my true calling!

This nested meditation was written by the Spirituality & Health reader whose question is featured in the accompanying article. It was his way of transforming his father’s initially hard-to-accept last words to him into a prayerful reflection on his relationship with his father and his sense of calling to be a hospice chaplain. (The writer desired to remain anonymous.)