I was in the bathroom getting ready for work when my mom came banging on the door to tell me that my dad wasn’t breathing.
It was a moment 14 years in the making.
It was 2005 when we first found out about my dad’s condition. Former president George W. Bush was inaugurated for a second term, Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” premiered.
But in my small world, it was the year my dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
I came home from middle school to find my parents in the living room ready to give my siblings and me “the talk.” My dad has always struggled with his weight. Like many Americans, he wasn’t the healthiest eater and worked sedentary jobs as a chauffeur and entrepreneur. He was independent, vibrant and a black business owner. He did what he loved, but it enabled an unhealthy lifestyle.
My family and I took the news in stride. We’ve had our fair share of bad news, so what’s one more, we thought. Eventually, he started getting tired quickly and it became hard for him to catch his breath.
Soon, he developed Type 2 diabetes. It got to the point where my dad had to choose: Continue to work and push himself beyond his limits, or retire and focus on his health. He chose the latter, but it came at a price. Having him on this planet longer meant taking a hit financially. A two-income household quickly became mostly dependent on one income.
As I became older, I became more aware of how this new dynamic was affecting how he spent his final years.
While most college students were calling home to get their social security numbers from their parents, I was signing his advance health care directive form as a witness.
I would come home for the weekend to find my dad ready to have conversations about his final wishes. He chose to be cremated because we had heard horror stories of families getting hit with large bills from funerals and burial costs alone. He didn’t want to be a financial burden after he died and became focused on making the grieving process easier for us when the time came.
Looking back, I was indifferent to the entire process. I nodded and agreed, just going through the motions, without being an active participant.
If I breathed any life into his choices, I was making it real. So instead, I went on autopilot. When it came up with my friends, I talked about it in a very clinical way. It worked. I made it to my college graduation, becoming the first in my family to do so. My dad was there to cheer me on.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree, I felt invincible and I think he did, too. So much so that I went out of state to pursue a master’s degree. He was taking his medicine daily and maintaining his health so I felt like I could finally focus on me. Once I graduated, I came back home, excited to start my professional journey.
I started temping in the area and was eager to find my place in the world. Then, something in the air changed. My dad was suffering from a cold that wouldn’t go away and it was hitting him hard. His energy seemed depleted. I tried to revert to old tactics. Just go on autopilot. Play along and it will eventually pass like every other instance so far. But it didn’t.
None of the conversations with my dad, the documents I signed, or the diagnosis could prepare me for the constant heartbreak I felt when he died.
Because I was temping and hadn’t worked long enough to earn paid time off, I had no choice but to continue working through my grief. Even if I did have a full-time job, I likely would not have received more than a few days. In 2017, Facebook announced it would expand its bereavement policy to allow for 20 days off following the death of an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member. The move makes the company’s approach unique among large companies.
While getting several days off — the standard amount of grieving time at most companies — allows for dealing with some logistics and attending a service, it forces employees to return to work just as the grief truly begins to set in, after the shock begins to wear off and the funeral is over.
In my case, we had to do what we always did as a family: go into survival mode.
I’m grateful to have had a dad who did whatever it took to support his family, no matter how big or small, and who went to lengths to minimize the financial impact his death would have on us, but I wish he didn’t have to spend his final years thinking about this.
Now, with some distance from the day, I focus on the fact that I got more years with him than I thought I would, but it doesn’t change that we all deserve to spend the time we need grieving when we lose the ones we love.