Finding Brightness: Lessons from Loss
Silver Linings Blog by Angie Ruddell
In the early hours of October 2, 2017, my dad got up to go to the bathroom and collapsed in the hallway. My mother heard the crash and immediately called 911.
I was on vacation in Portland at the time and asleep with ear plugs. I woke up at 6:30am to 20 voicemails and texts from family telling me to get on a plane because my dad was about to die. I canceled my flight back to Denver, booked one to San Luis Obispo, CA, (SLO) and rushed to get home.
When I finally arrived at the hospital, we found out that the collapse was related to a minor procedure performed in September. Five months previously, my dad had a pacemaker implanted in his chest, and this procedure was to mitigate some horrible side effects he was experiencing. During the procedure, the doctor accidentally and unknowingly burned a hole between my dad’s esophagus and heart chamber. The injury, an esophageal-pericardial fistula, was an incredibly rare complication that local doctors had never seen.
After failed attempts to address the fistula, my dad was rapidly deteriorating. Two weeks into his hospitalization, we were transferred to the University of Southern California’s Keck Hospital for an emergency exploratory heart surgery. The team of doctors warned us that he had a 0% chance of surviving based on the few previous cases they’d seen. Miraculously, he survived that surgery, and he continued to fight like hell. What was supposed to be a week at Keck turned into four months.
My mom and I moved into a medical school dorm across from the hospital so we could take shifts at my dad’s bedside between 5am-9pm. At first, there was hope, but every day it was something new. I became an expert in everything I never wanted to know. I read chest X-rays and CT scans. I became an after-hours physical therapist. I attended every patient round and learned the surgery schedules of all the doctors so I could chase them down with questions. Every day, every procedure, I was there.
In January 2018, we hit a standstill with his condition. I made the choice to return to Denver and keep my job, flying back to LA on the weekends. On Tuesday, February 9th, my dad slipped into a coma. That Friday I finally got the call: all his organs had failed, and there was nothing left for the doctors to do.
I got the very last seat on my Southwest flight out of Denver in the last row on the plane. I asked the flight attendant if she’d hold the passengers so I could get off first. “My dad is terminally ill,” I said. “I need to get to the hospital as soon as we land.” As we taxied to the gate, the flight attendant came over the loudspeaker and said, “we ask that you please remain in your seats when we pull into the gate. We have a passenger at the back of the plane with a family emergency.” You’ve been on those flights before. You’ve heard those announcements. This time, I realized, the announcement was for me. The woman next to me looked over sympathetically and wished me luck. As soon as the plane stopped, the flight attendant handed me my bag and said, “run.” I felt hundreds of eyes staring at me from behind, grateful that the emergency wasn’t theirs.
An ambulance took us back to the hospital in SLO and, later, home. On Friday, February 16th at 6:40am, my dad took his last breath in our living room. My mom more eloquently refers to it as when he received his angel wings.
After he died, I was so angry. I still am. This loss broke my heart in a way I never knew was possible. I had support, but I also realized no one knew what to say or how to be around me. Many close friends distanced themselves, and I stopped hearing from them. I felt abandoned and alone.
Through the prompting of a college friend, I sought support in The Dinner Party. TDP brings together young adults who have experienced loss around a “table” to share in grief and celebration. I signed up to be a host, attended many events, and in August 2019 I got my own table. Funnily enough, I knew one of the women assigned to my table. I hadn’t known she had lost her dad too. Through the death of my dad and the support of my grief friends, I came to understand that I can carry sadness and still have a great life. Experiencing happiness isn’t an assault on my grief, and I surely won’t always be happy.
I recall sitting with my dad in the early days of his sickness, crying and wailing that I wouldn’t know how to keep going if he died. He looked at me with his compassionate, warm eyes and said it made him sad that I felt this way, everyone leaves at some point, and no matter what, I would be okay. As simple as it sounds on paper, it’s with me every day.
My dad was a lifelong adventurer, and I believe he died with very little regret. In early 2020, I decided to make a conscious effort to waste less time worrying about others’ opinions of me or waiting around for something good to happen. I’ve been known to really sweat the small (and big) stuff, but I still hear my dad’s voice saying “baby, you gotta let it go”.
When it comes to silver linings, I am still finding them. Through the loss of my dad, I have held on to the lessons he taught me that make my life brighter. Our society isn’t great about acknowledging and supporting grief, but I am now part of multiple communities working to change that. We will all experience loss in our lifetime, and the more compassion we can show in life and in death, the more fully we will live.
Angie is in her second year of service on the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce YP Board as the executive committee co-vice chair. She is the Manager of Communication and Culture for Strive Health, a healthcare technology company in the kidney care space. Outside of work, Angie is an avid hiker, currently pursuing the 52 hike challenge.
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