32. Be present with the pain

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Michelle and Phil shared some of the most challenging moments, thoughts, and feelings they’ve had in their caregiving and grief process over the last three decades, and how they were able to eventually move forward from the devastating loss of their son Gabe.

I asked Phil our recording what he meant by the following (in reference to his last moments with Gabe):

I feel like having gotten through that moment and then having gotten through his actual death… in some way was part of what enabled me to get through the last 23 years.”

He explained that seeing Gabe accepting his own impending death helped Phil start to accept what was happening, and while Phil at that point had spent nearly eight years trying to save his son, the most loving thing he could offer at that moment was to help Gabe leave, and “… help his spirit be freed from this life.”

Listening to Michelle and Phil’s reflections on their caregiving and grief experience dusted off some of my own memories of the most intense moments I had with my dad’s cancer experience, like how my mom and I used to argue quite often because we were both stressed and perpetually sleep-deprived or having intimate conversations with each other when my dad was dying.

What I did not experience though, was the decade-long heartache Michelle described. As someone who doesn’t have children, it’s impossible for me to fully appreciate how devastating the experience of losing a child must be for parents. But that’s also what’s really reassuring about Phil and Michelle’s story. While they described their experiences in different words, the underlying message was the same – that grief requires courage, honesty, and persistence, but if you genuinely put in the work, the wound will eventually become a scar.

Phil also added another piece of advice after we finished recording – which is that it’s okay to ask for help, and if help is offered, it’s okay to accept it. I couldn’t agree more, but I also know that we live in a culture where asking and accepting help is very hard for some to do. Just remember that dealing with cancer is often a marathon and not a sprint, so if there’s ever a reasonable time to get help, this would be it!

You can read more about their story in an article Phil had written for the San Diego Reader. Also, check out Okizu and the amazing services they are still providing to families today.

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