Losing my Father in Law
The idea for sharing my experience about farming through grief came a few years ago. I watched my dear mother in law and co-farmer grieve the loss of her husband of 59 years. My father in law became ill at the age of 90. His kidneys began to fail and he spent several months on dialysis. Dialysis was difficult at his age and we watched him become frail and weak.
She fulfilled her marriage vow of in sickness and in health as she cared for him. She drove him a half an hour each way to dialysis three times a week. Her life was filled with doctor appointments, trying to find food that he would find appetizing and eat, and constant trips to dialysis. My husband, children and I were able to fill in the gaps. We milked her cow, cared for her flock of chickens and did her other chores.
He died at Christmas time after a short stay at the hospital. The next few weeks were filled with funeral arrangements, legal and financial details, and then thank you cards. Then things became quiet. The frequent phone calls and sympathy cards stopped. All the final arrangements and loose ends were tied up. Now we had to find the new normal without my father in law.
Losing My Father
Fast forward to last Fall. My own father was diagnosed with melanoma. The doctors found three spots on his brain. Of course, we were concerned. However, the doctors said it was treatable and he would have surgery in two weeks to remove them. The day before the scheduled surgery, he had an MRI. The spots had grown from the size of a peppercorn to the size of a grape. Surgery was no longer an option, so he would start radiation.
The doctors were still quite optimistic. Over the next couple of weeks, my father became very ill with nausea and vomiting. He was finally hospitalized shortly after Christmas for dehydration. A full body scan was done. It was found that cancer had spread to his liver, lungs, and abdomen. The doctors gave him a terminal diagnosis.
We were crushed, but we hoped we would have a year or at least several months with him. Sadly, he died just two short weeks later. We were devastated. He went from a healthy, active man to bedridden in less than two months. Again our lives were filled with doctor appointments, caring for my dad, and then the funeral arrangements. Then as things quieted down. We are finding our new normal without him.
Grieving as a Farmer
Dealing with grief as a farmer is unique. Of course, no matter what your profession, life goes on around you as you are thrown into the vortex of grief. Many jobs you can take time off and deal with the arrangements and emotions. Not farming, the animals still need to be cared for. There is no boss to call and ask for time off. If you are blessed, you may be able to hire someone for a couple of days, but that is not likely. During my father’s illness, my husband and children stepped in and cover my chores while I helped care for my dad. As difficult as it was to juggle the chores, we somehow managed to keep the farm running during the illness and funeral.
Having said all that, there is something healing about farming and grief. As my heart was broken into a million pieces and now begins to heal, the constant rhythm of the farm continues on. As a farmer, you cannot stay in bed and bury yourself in grief. The animals depend on you for food, shelter, and water. You must drag yourself out of bed and care for them.
Comfort in Chores
The methodical action of dressing in warm, winter chore clothes and walking through the crunching snow to break the ice in the still of the morning is rhythmic. Seeing the cows warm breath in the cold air is comforting. Watching the sky turn from pink to orange to blue as the sun rises is still beautiful. Listening to the low moos of cows and soft clucks of the chickens is familiar. So as your heart aches to the very core, the animals stay the same. There is a strange comfort in that.
The animals are oblivious to your loss and pain. I have wept through the chores many times while processing the loss. As comforting as it is to have someone put their arms around you while you grieve, there is also solitary comfort in weeping and working with animals who are unaware of your loss and pain. Watching the cows methodically chew their cud and soak up the winter sun to watching the chickens scratch through fresh bedding looking for seeds becomes a comforting sight.
Both of our fathers passed away during the deep, dark winter days when the earth sleeps and cold envelops everything. But, as the days get longer and the sun becomes warmer, the pieces of my heart begin to heal. I daydream about the next and favorite season of the farm as it will spring into new life. Seeing the first new calf suckling its mother, watching a broody hen try to hide a clutch of eggs to hatch into fuzzy, yellow chicks, seeing the first green sprigs of alfalfa emerge from the brown, muddy ground, my heart swells. I know that both of these dads would want us to keep on living, keep on caring for the animals and our tiny corner of the earth.
But grief is a complicated emotion. With each new season, a fresh wave of grief blows in. New reminders of the activities we will never experience with dad. Dad and I will never build a new chicken tractor or dog house. I will not be able to ask him my gardening questions or show him my prize tomatoes. Then I remember his grandchildren. My children, who we must teach the lessons we learned from both of their grandpas. How one grandpa built things out of wood and planted things. While the other grandpa could fix an engine and build gates from old metal wagon wheels. We must cultivate the new life in these children who will carry on their grandpas’ memories and skills to their generation.
As difficult as it is to keep up with the logistics of farming during times of grief, I would not trade the rhythm of farming for any other livelihood to heal my broken heart. To watch the deep, dark, cold winter days that never seem to end emerge slowly into warm, bright spring days bursting with new life reflects the character of God.