A remarkable experience after a sudden loss

Ellen and Herbert Henry, the writer's parents. They were on a cruise with loved ones when he died at sea. LINDA HENRY
Ellen and Herbert Henry, the writer's parents. They were on a cruise with loved ones when he died at sea. LINDA HENRY
Posted: June 17, 2012

What happens when the worst happens, during a long-anticipated vacation on a lovely ship? My father, Herbert Henry, 78, died at sea on the March 31 sailing of the Norwegian Jewel, cruising with his wife, his daughter (me), his granddaughter, and a family friend.

Dad had skipped dinner that first full day at sea and was sleeping on the sofa bed, with Mom and my niece in the master bedroom. I was in the connecting cabin. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and did not hear him snoring. Not good. I opened the door and went over to the sofa bed. He was no longer with us.

I picked up the cabin phone, and within one minute, a nurse and an emergency team were pounding on the door. The nurse performed CPR as crew members came running in to assist. The portable shock machine kept saying, "No charge recommended." Of course none was recommended: He was already gone. But they were just doing what they had to do.

By this time, a stretcher had arrived and took Dad to the doctor's office, where I was escorted. After a few minutes, the ship's doctor came in to tell me what I already knew.

What next? The ship would call the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Canaveral, Fla., police and coroner. Crew members could not tell us what would happen until we were closer to the cruise's first port of call.

Back to the cabin, where ship's security told us, as gently as possible, that we needed to take what we could out of the cabin, because they had to seal it off for the police investigation. Yellow "caution" tape crisscrossed the door to the suite.

Soon after we docked, the Port Canaveral police arrived. They asked all the necessary questions, which I answered, and I didn't even choke up until the end. Then, they went to examine the cabin. After about 15 minutes, they came out and said they were releasing the cabin. They were also releasing the body to the medical examiner's office, and we would need to wait to hear from that office for further directions. Eventually, the death certificate would list "nontraumatic seizure" as the cause of death.

Sarah, the ship's port agent for Port Canaveral, arrived about 1:30 p.m. We had decided on cremation, and Sarah took us to a funeral home in Port Canaveral. As we left the ship, I saw them taking Dad on a stretcher to an ambulance. Sarah tried to shield us, but I didn't mind. I saw two crew members take off their caps in respect as Dad was transferred to the ambulance. Thank you, crew members.

In Port Canaveral, I found out that I had worked with the funeral director's father 20 years ago. Small world.

We returned to the ship. We continued on the cruise without my dad. Mom was with her daughter, her granddaughter, and her best friend — staying together seemed like the right option. After all, what do families do after the death of a loved one? Gather together, drink, eat. That's also what families do on a cruise — like a prolonged Irish wake. It was cathartic, particularly sitting on the balcony, seeing the sun set over the ocean, and imagining Dad enjoying the view from a different angle.

The next time you are cruising, drink a toast to the crew of the Norwegian Jewel and to my Dad, a good man, a brave man, and best of all, a man who loved his family unconditionally. We miss you, Dad.

Linda Henry lives in Bethlehem, Pa. Her father, Herbert Henry, was born and raised in the Meadows, in the Eastwick section of Philadelphia. Travel insurance paid for the five days that he missed, for the ship's medical-bay charges, and for shipping the cremated remains from Florida to a funeral home near Philadelphia.

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