Caring for My Dad as a Nurse Practitioner

by Jennifer McKenna, NPNurse PractitionerAugust 29, 2022View more posts from Jennifer McKenna, NP

I have taken care of so many people throughout the years and cared about each of them in some way. Many made their way into my heart, some in unexpected ways. It all changed me. It used to make me sad and drain me and leave me without energy for myself and my family. But all difficult things in life make you stronger, and this did as well. Over time I took solace in being able to make a difference—if in even a small way I eased their suffering or somehow made it easier. This became my sustenance; the work became intensely gratifying but still draining. I continue to be amazed at people’s resiliency in the face of real-life horror.

I quickly realized that people with religion or faith were more accepting of their illness and their death—even those dying so young. I envied that. I didn’t have faith—how could “god” create so much suffering? How could it be OK, part of some greater plan, for a 25-year-old to die before she really got to live? Some have faith in a “higher power” that guides them to be better people. Over time I have come to believe that there is something bigger than us, something that has brought certain people into my life—it all happens for a reason and it is not for us to understand. Some people go to church or meetings or pray to feel closer to this higher power. I go to the mountains.

Hiking has kept me sane over the past few years of intense loss and sadness. Putting one foot in front of the other out there just soothes my soul. The trees, the roots, the rocks, the dirt, the leaves, the snow, the sky, the rain, the sun, the heat, the cold—all of it. You hike to get to the amazing vista points, but getting there is just as calming and energizing and makes me want to keep showing up and caring for myself so I can keep doing what I was meant to do.

But none of this prepared me for being on the other side—taking care of someone I loved who was ravaged with cancer and dying. I knew too much and was the one that everyone came to with questions, and I wondered how much I should tell them. Do I tell them that this will be awful and quick, but not quick enough in the end when it seems that the actual dying takes forever, but then it’s over? Do I tell them to cherish this time because as hard as it seems now, it’s only going to get harder? I was the only one in the room that understood what was coming next and knew that everything had gotten worse. I wanted to explain and protect and care all at the same time. I understood what was happening medically and then accepted that this time it was happening to my dad. It was surreal. Needing to grieve along the way, there were moments when it was just more than I could do.

My dad was smart and funny and a great listener. He was truly interested in talking to every person he met. He was a classic absent-minded professor who made us laugh and could laugh at himself—something I wish I was better at. He had a Scottish brogue that had faded over the years of living in the U.S. but was still so charming. He hated cursing, only making the exception when talking about Trump. He was a bleeding heart liberal and couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t one too. My Dad knew what was important in life. He loved a celebration and made everyone around him feel included and valued. He considered it his solemn duty to keep everyone’s glass full. He was a hilarious dancer, but he didn’t care; he was having fun and everyone around him was too. He always reminded us of the importance of focusing on all the good life has to offer. He knew his life was blessed and he had no regrets, except that it was over too soon for him. He wasn’t ready to leave us. And we weren’t ready to lose him. But we probably never would have been ready.

Being able to help care for him in the last days of his life was one of the greatest privileges of my life. We were so lucky to all be together—me, my two brothers, and my mom. The spouses and grandkids were in and out but the five original were together until the end. Even in the darkest hours, we found things to share and laugh about. As agonizing as it was, it was also some of the most special moments I have had with my brothers. I have seen other families fracture in these circumstances, but not us. We are so fortunate.

I will never forget giving him that last dose of morphine, knowing that was his last breath and that he had left us, left this earth. But We knew that we did the very best for him that we could. Just as he did for us our whole lives. He died in the house that he loved, in his bed, with all of us there. What more could you ask for, other than more time?

I think about him every day, and he always makes me smile, even if I am shedding a few tears along the way. I carry him in my heart up and down all of the mountains. Hiking wasn’t something he had any interest in doing, but he loved that I loved it—he loved that I found how to keep myself happy while continuing to do the hard work of life. That to him was true success. He taught me well.

While my work did not completely prepare me for caring for my dad, I am grateful that my knowledge and experience helped my dad, my mom, and my brothers. And the experience of caring for and ultimately losing my Dad has helped me with my work moving forward. It taught me empathy for my patients’ loved ones, which is something that could never be taught in a textbook or classroom, and for this, I am forever grateful.

This article was featured at our August 2022 Perkatory. Click here to learn more about Perkatory and sign up for an upcoming Perkatory!

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