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Unravel Yourself

“How could one person, not very big, leave an emptiness that was galaxy-wide.”
~Sheldon Vanauken, from A Severe Mercy 

On Wednesday, June 6th, I walked through the emergency room with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I made my way over to bed number one and immediately noticed all the loud beeping; they seemed magnified that morning. The loud sounds annoyed me and I wondered if they also annoyed my step-dad, Mahlon.

I leaned in close to Mahlon and gave him a kiss on his forehead. He opened his eyes and I said, “Papa Bear, you scared us this morning.”

Mahlon looked up at me and said, “I scared myself. I didn’t have any control over my body.”

“I know Dad. This isn’t easy. I love you so much.”

He closed his eyes and said, “I love you, too.”

A few minutes passed and Mahlon opened his eyes again and asked, “Am I dead, yet?”

My eyes filled with tears and I said, “No, Dad, you’re in the hospital. You’re safe and we love you.”

I had a feeling this might be Mahlon’s last trip to the ER and it was. Just four days later, on Sunday June 10th, 2012, we got “the call.” When the phone rang, I remember waking up and feeling disoriented and scared. Everything happened so fast and before I knew it my mom was driving us into town. I sat in the passenger seat looking out the window because I couldn’t take my eyes off the eerie half moon floating in the sky.

The next thing I knew we were pulling into a parking space at the hospital and my mom said, “Tammy, you can do this. Be brave.”

“I know I can do this, but I’m scared. I’ve never seen anyone die before.”

It’s still hard for me to believe that that my mom and I sat with Mahlon as his body slowly shut down that early Sunday morning. I remember the nurse coming into the room at 3:15 a.m. and closing the blue curtain to give us privacy. I thought, “Oh, it’s close. They know.”

I held Mahlon’s hand and gently stroked his forehead and cheeks. His cheeks were so cold and the span between his breaths kept getting longer. I kept glancing at the big white clock and noted the time between each breath—five seconds, seven, ten, fifteen, and then he took his last, long deep breath at 3.29 a.m. The clocked ticked on, yet Mahlon’s chest wasn’t moving up and down.

I stood there looking at Mahlon’s face and thought, “This can’t be real.” I felt like a zombie as I walked out to the nurse’s station. Tears were streaming down my face and I said, “I think he’s gone.”

Leslie, one of the nurses, followed us into the room and checked Mahlon’s pulse. She said the doctor would be here soon to declare the time of death. Doctor Lair came into the room soon after and checked his pulse and heart and declared the time of death to be 3:30 a.m.

We sat with Mahlon for another hour. My mom held his hand and kept saying, “Honey, it’s so hard to walk out of this room. It’s so hard to leave.”

It felt so odd to sit with him like this. He was so still and I kept expecting him to sit up and tell us that this was a big practical joke.

We left his hospital room around 4:30 a.m. and I drove my mom home. As I drove northward, the sun started to rise and there was a brilliant orange glow hitting the oak trees and the Sacramento River. My mom and I were quiet, lost in our own thoughts, and I thought to myself, There must be an art to acceptance. How are we going to process this loss and continue to hold onto hope?

this i know

Something that’s helped me process this loss and hold onto hope is an incredible book, called this i know: notes on unraveling the heart, by Susannah Conway. I’ve read a lot of amazing books this year, but I have to say this i know is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012.

I don’t say that lightly because I read a lot of books. However, I’ve read Susannah’s book twice this year and I reread certain passages the day after my dad died. It’s a book that won’t leave my library because it’s given me hope and comfort over the last few months.

As I wrote this post, I reread a few passages in my journal and on June 11th — the day after my dad died — I wrote:

I took away three lessons from Susannah’s book: 1. You never get over loss, but it gets a little bit easier to deal with as time moves on. 2. Stuffing emotions will only cause you more pain in the long-run. Talk about your feelings and use your creative energy to move through grief. 3. Use creative outlets — like writing and photography — to help you hold onto love and hope.

Over the last month, I’ve unraveled my own expectations about love, loss, and hope and I’ve held onto the lessons I noted in my journal. As Susannah says, “Unraveling is not a bad thing. It’s not coming undone or losing control. It’s letting go in the best possible way, untangling the knots that hold you back, unwrapping the gifts you’ve hidden for too long, unearthing the potential that’s always been there, finally ditching the labels and should-haves, and letting yourself be what you were always meant to be.”

Be well,

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alannah July 17, 2012, 9:48 am

    It takes an incredibly brave person to sit with someone during their last moments. I admire you and your courage and openness about your relationship with Mahlon. I hope you will find more and more comfort and peace as time goes on. <3

  • Kristin Noelle July 17, 2012, 9:54 am

    Tears stream down my face. What a beautiful, beautiful recounting of what you experienced that day. I am loving Susannah’s book, too, and feeling such a different perspective on my own seasons of unraveling. Thank you for this reminder.

  • SKM July 17, 2012, 10:05 am

    Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my grandpa’s death. One of the most profound moments of my life was being in the room when he died. It’s something I carry with me, that I share with my mom, my (now late) grandma, and one of my cousins. I never want to relive those days that followed – funeral planning, the funeral itself, my first birthday post-grandpa, going back to work when all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and never speak another word again. It does get better, but five years after he’s left us – I still think about him every day. And there are some times that are harder than others … but he lives on in my memories, in my stories, in photos … and I do believe that after how many years that he was ill on this planet, he’s found peace.

    Take the time you need. Be gentle to yourself. I think this is a lifetime process.

  • Vanessa Hernandez July 17, 2012, 10:22 am

    Thank you for sharing this vulnerable moment with us <3

  • Hannah July 17, 2012, 10:23 am

    I just wanted to take a moment to say I’m so sorry for your loss. You offer such wonderful advice in this beautifully written and touching article. I especially liked the quote from Susannah’s book that you close with: “…untangling the knots that hold you back, unwrapping the gifts you’ve hidden for too long, unearthing the potential that’s always been there, finally ditching the labels and should-haves, and letting yourself be what you were always meant to be.”

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Natalie July 17, 2012, 10:41 am

    This is beautifully written Tammy. You are so brave to express yourself, especially at a time of such great loss. I admire your honesty and your art (writing) is really portraying your growth. 🙂

  • Sandra Rieser July 17, 2012, 11:00 am

    Through fate and choice I watched the end of all things with my Grandmother, beloved Aunt and two husbands. I do not recommend being one of the vigilant to anyone and yet I now view the experience as both a curse and a blessing. It does destroy you, especially in the case of a spouse, yet that must be tempered with the gratitude that the last thing this wonderful person knew was your loyal, loving presence and the sight of your face.

    With the demise of my latest husband, who was the perfect, soul mate match, my overwhelming sudden horror became, “I’ll never see his beautiful face again!” And immediately after the burial I asked a friend to provide me with a large blow-up of a portrait photo I had of him. It sits prominantly where I see it at all times and it has really helped me so much.

    There is no cure, the emptiness, sorrow and longing never leave, that is just the bare fact of it all. Only your vivid memories of the living person brings joy and thankfulness that you were privileged to share in their lives.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear July 17, 2012, 11:00 am

    Tammy, thank you for sharing this beautiful, heartfelt, true story of your last moments with Mahlon. Sitting with my friend, former housemate, and surrogate grandpa Gene on the last night of his life was very difficult, but it was also one of the best nights I’ve ever experienced, because it was a night full of love.

    I am unraveled, remembering, and yet, I am also made whole.

  • Denise July 17, 2012, 11:03 am

    I’m so glad I got to meet you and was able to give you a hug and if I was there right now I’d give you another. Sometimes the best we can do for someone is just be there. You were. I said it before and I’ll say it again he’s so lucky to have you for a daughter.

    Susannah’s book sounds amazing. I came unravelled myself last year and it led to a year of painful yet transformative growth. I’m happy your leaning into this. While you’ll always miss your dad, you will never regret the love you have for him or the journey your on. Love you and holding you close.

  • Rose Byrd July 17, 2012, 11:09 am

    Tammy, I am still remembering you and your mom in my prayers–to be comforted, to experience more and more happy memories of Mahlon! Unraveling IS truly healing, because it keeps you from winding tight the hurt and strangling your own heart!

  • Sarah July 17, 2012, 9:55 pm

    I’ve been following your blog for about a year now, I came across the tiny house posts and just couldn’t stop coming back after that, you are such a good writer, I am glad you decided to make it your full time job! I’ve very much enjoyed all of your writing, though I wanted to thank you especially for this post and all the other ones that you share about your father in.
    My father was 52 when he passed away November 9th last year after battling esophageal cancer for about a year. He walked my sister down the aisle and went into the hospital the next day…he came home 18 days later, and passed away 2 days after that. It has gotten easier, though I haven’t talked about my father’s passing much. I would imagine it is therapeutic (does that sound odd?), I’ll have to call up a few good friends.
    I could never say that I know what you’re going through, because loss is so different for every individual that deals with it, but I am deeply sorry for your loss. Thank you for being so brave and sharing this part of your life with so many readers, and know that what you do share brings healing to others! I will keep you and your Mom (and Logan of course) in my thoughts and prayers…and hope that you will find healing and comfort through this difficult time.

  • Bekah July 18, 2012, 7:37 am

    Oh, Tammy, I’m so sorry for your loss. I sat with my grandfather when he died, and your story brought me instantly back to those moments after he’d passed and how my family just sat around his bed, not knowing how to leave him behind, alone in that room. I’m so glad that you’re able to begin to unravel your grief, and I wish you much success on your journey.

  • kim July 18, 2012, 8:01 am

    Tammy, What an absolutely beautiful writing of a very hard time for you. Thank you for sharing. You are so brave. When my father in law passed, my husband chose to not be there. He couldn’t bare it. You are very brave. I am so very sorry.

  • Nikki July 18, 2012, 8:08 am

    I remember walking to the room where my Grandpa lay. We were too late getting to the hospital, he was already gone. I will never forget how he looked. I think you were very brave to sit and watch him take his last breath.

  • Debra July 18, 2012, 2:52 pm

    Hi Tammy, I am sorry for your loss. I think every day about my parents (maybe I shouldn’t) and wonder how much time I will have with them. My parents were my age when they both lost THEIR parents. I am happy that you simplified your life so that you could be there. Now you can be with your mother. Thank you for writing this, it was not easy, you are paving the road for us in so many ways.

  • Nina July 18, 2012, 3:44 pm

    I called my step-father Papa too, he died June 11th, last month and he was everything to me. Thank you for writing this post, one of the strangest things I’ve faced about grief is how lonely it can make you feel around those who have never lost anyone and can’t understand. So many times, when someone asks me how I am doing I want to say all the things you’ve expressed in your post but of course the answer is always “I’m okay.” I don’t don’t say it because it’s expected, but it’s just easier. It was wonderful to hear you speak so honestly and bravely, and it made me feel less alone. I know how hard it is to watch someone pass, especially when it’s your big strong Papa. Take good care of yourself…and take time whenever you need to.

  • Sandra Pawula July 18, 2012, 9:49 pm


    Thank you for sharing your process of loss with us so openly and so poignantly. It’s so important that we all really see and understand that loss is a part of life because truly understanding impermanence can really, really help us get our priorities straight. So often it’s hidden in our culture. So thank you for being out there and open with it. My heart is with you. May we all unravel in the best ways possible.

  • melissa July 21, 2012, 8:46 am

    Tammy, thank you for all that you write but especially for your focus lately on grief and loss. To be honest, I had avoided catching up with your posts lately due to my own family’s struggles. My dad went into the hospital for the last time on June 11 and passed on June 29. I have no words, and certainly none better than yours, but I am struggling so deeply. Thank you for introducing me to Susannah’s book – I have been considering buying it but now, seeing how you were able to relate it to your loss, it seems it may be time to go ahead and pick it up. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone.

    • Tammy Strobel July 21, 2012, 9:05 am

      Melissa – I’m so sorry about your dad. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Susannah’s book. It’s helped me tremendously. I hope you’re doing little things to take care of yourself during this time.

      Be well,