A Story from Our Hospice Houses: Dena Williams

Death altered every aspect of Dena Williams’ life. 

“Someone said it’s life altering, and it really is. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I’m 50 and I can’t imagine anything harder ever happening to me than losing my parents,” she explained while reminiscing about her late-father’s time at EveryStep’s Kavanagh House on 56th Street. “It’s very surreal, it’s very surreal.”

Clyde Williams married Dena’s mother when Dena was eight-years old. He raised her, along with her two brothers until they were old enough to live on their own. Even then, he was never far, living only a short distance away from where Dena settled down. 

In his mid-seventies, Clyde was admitted to the hospital in failing health. When it was clear there were no other options, he was moved to Kavanagh House on 56th Street.

Even in his last days he was dedicated to his children. He personally wrote each a letter they could read once he had passed away. 

"He was probably one of the most caring people you had ever met. When people would say, 'That's the kind of person who would give the shirt off his back,' that was my dad," Dena said, noting that Clyde helped shape who she would become until the very end of his life.

Dena is currently part of a team that develops incentive programs for companies. If you ever win a trip to Hawaii, you can thank her. Outside of work, Dena is a quiet person who loves to read, camp, and volunteer. The latter interest was influenced by her parents, especially her late father. 

"When we were packing up his closet, we found a bunch of shirts that he had just; and this was when he was pretty sick... that he had purchased for someone, that he saw somewhere and they were on sale and he thought 'You know? This person from church could really use some new shirts.’" 

One thing Dena learned from her last days with Clyde was the consciousness of dying. 

While at the Kavanagh House on 56th Street, Clyde was mostly unconscious. Dena and her family would talk and joke around while he slept. During a session of light teasing Clyde woke up to stop what he had perceived as fighting; they quickly reassured him everything was alright. 

"I completely believe they know what's happening, that they're waiting for specific things,” Dena said.

On another visit, Dena told Clyde how much she loved him as she was leaving. Suddenly, he awoke to calmly tell her how much he loved her.

She also learned what a hospice could be. Most people have a grim picture of hospice, enveloped in pain and suffering. Dena was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case at Kavanagh House on 56th Street. 

"Everyone was just so caring. It didn't matter what kind of request you had,” she said, adding that staff at Kavanagh House on 56th Street went above and beyond in their treatment of Clyde.

The final lesson she gained from the experience was the impact of death. A mostly unfamiliar topic to her, Clyde’s passing gave Dena a new perspective on life. 

"It's very surreal and it's life altering. It changes everything, kind of rocks your world. For a long time… several months I just kind of felt like I was floating, like I really didn't have anything to stand on,” she recalls.

The hardest experience of her life provided Dena with a new outlook, one that wasn’t always easy to handle. She would face many trials in the coming months after her father’s passing.

Her changing role was the biggest trial she faced. Because her parents had always lived close, she considered herself their child and friend. When Clyde passed away, that role shifted. She was now a caretaker for her grieving mother.

"The biggest change is the roles change within a family. All the sudden I'm caring for her, which is different... I think going to the grief counseling session really helped, but there are times where I kind of get frustrated, I want her to be my mom again,” Dena said.

However, her time with EveryStep Grief & Loss Services’ grief support group prepared her for these new burdens.

 In these group meetings, she learned to cope with her pain and understand her frustration. Going from a child and friend to a caretaker can be difficult. After her father’s passing, Dena would constantly be on the phone consoling her mother. Though this is a job she would always take with no second thoughts, she admits the shift was challenging.

"Without going to the sessions, the grief counseling, I don't think I would have understood the things that she's going through... I don't think I would have understood what was happening and how normal that is for someone,” she said.

Today, she better understands everything she has gained and lost from the experience. Death is a challenging experience and one few are prepared for. Dena didn’t consider herself ready to face her father’s death when it occurred but found the strength to pull through. None of the challenges she faced were easy, but her own strength and the support from her family and friends allowed her to overcome those obstacles.

EveryStep also assisted her by offering what she described as excellent service at Kavanagh House on 56th Street and the grief support group. Those who may be going through a similar experience can find the Kavanagh House at 900 56th St in Des Moines, Iowa. They can be reached at (515) 255-0857.

This story is an edited excerpt of a piece written by Drake University student Noah Dougen.