I am smack in the middle of my ‘year of firsts’ over losing my Dad six months ago. You know, the first year journey in the grief of losing someone you loved so very much.
I have found that grief isn’t a 5 stage process or any finite number of stages, but rather a continuum of emotions that seem to feel more like a roller coaster ride where there are ups and downs, forwards and backwards, and sometimes some super-duper twists thrown in for good measure.
This is my first holiday without my Dad. Usually, the holiday season is a sparkling vista of joy, laughter, family, cozy traditions, and treasured times with friends; it is truly my favorite time of the year. This year, the holiday season spreads before me more like an emotional minefield, with memories and emotions littered like bombs just waiting to take me by surprise and implode my aching heart.
I find myself consoling the people who try to console me. My grief and sorrow is a raw, jagged edge that people don’t want to get to close to…not because they don’t care, but because they don’t know what to say or do when they bump into that edge and feel that pain. Part of it is the fact that losing a parent is within the natural order of life right?
As in jeeze, lady, move on already.
A parent is supposed to leave before us and therefore it’s deemed that one would grieve rather quickly and move on with life. Because it’s your parent and you’re supposed to be ready for this when you’re an adult. But you’re not. Ever. Ready.
That is utter…as my father would say…bullshit.
The magnitude and depth of feelings over the loss of my father is something no words can adequately measure or even come close to. You can truly feel your heartbreaking in the face of such loss.
One of my dearest friends came over right after he passed away (she actually asked me if it was okay rather than show up at my door unannounced), and as I fumbled around in the midst of an ugly cry, she said the most profound thing that captured my grief. She said, “well you know, it’s understandable because you’ve lost your person.”
Four words that said it all.
You’ve lost your person.
My Dad was my person. Please don’t misunderstand this because my husband of 34 years and my children are also my people, but my Dad was my person.
He was the only person on earth who has loved me from the moment I was born. The only person.
He was the single 22-year-old father who fought for custody of me when I was four years old.
He was the only person who was the keeper and teller of my childhood stories.
He was the only person who always introduced me as ‘my daughter’ with that pride so evident in his voice.
He was the first person I called with good news or bad.
He was the only ear that listened without judgment when I felt like I had no one else.
As I move through this journey, I have learned so many things in such a short amount of time. In no particular order here is what I know as it relates to the death of a parent.
You’re never ready.
My Dad was 71 when he died and I’m 53…and I was completely blindsided by his passing. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at its early stages, did everything the Drs. told him to do, got great reports from the Drs., and he passed away due to complications from the surgery. I was lulled into a sense of ‘everything was going to be fine’ and when it was not, I was devastated.
My FIL was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the same time my father’s cancer was detected, and at Stage 4, we knew the outcome was grim. However, he passed away much quicker than we expected and we were not ready.
So it doesn’t matter the circumstances or how much you expect it…you’re never ready to become a member of the I-lost-a-parent club.
Your grief is not my grief.
Although grief is a universal path we all must travel, each path is only yours. Please don’t say I know how you feel, because, nope you don’t. The depth of relationship (or lack thereof), background, experiences you had with the person who is now gone, the circumstances of death, all make your relationship with grief unique. My husband lost his father a mere ten weeks to Stage 4 cancer before my father passed away and I can tell you that we grieve very differently.
Don’t ever let someone tell you that there is a right way and a wrong way to grieve or how to express your grief.
I am still shocked at the ferocity of grief I feel at different times and how it can undo me. I went to a local store the other day to buy a card and walked past the candy section. One of my Dad’s Christmas presents from me every year was a Whitman’s sampler…I burst into tears when I saw that simple yellow box at the end of the aisle. A reminder that my father will not be here to accept that long traditional gift from me.
It will take as long as it will take.
There isn’t a timeline on grief; in fact, I believe it will always be there, ever at the ready to either gently tap you on the shoulder or hit you with a sledgehammer. You are entitled to travel this journey at your own pace and not made to feel like you ‘should be over it by now’. And if you have people in your life who feel that way…minimize your contact with them. If the burden feels like the weight never eases, then please seek support and help as appropriate to your situation.
Your stories and childhood memories are gone forever.
My Dad was a great storyteller and he loved telling stories of my childhood. He was a bit of a hothead and brawler in his younger days and he was chock full of stories about a time that was really quite traumatic, but he made it sound humorous and exciting. He had certain mannerisms when he told a story, and even the most mundane of tales made you laugh and wanting more. He was a vault of memories that I don’t have and now never will again.
It’s important to find a way to honor your person and your grief
My Dad was always adamant about not wanting a memorial or service in any way, and my bonus mom and I honored those wishes. I find though, that it hurts my heart not to have had some sort of way to celebrate him. To talk with, laugh with, and cry with people who have fond memories of him. To share a story or to simply say he touched their life in some way. He was a man who was very well-liked, gregarious, and respected in the town he lived in and I would have loved to see the many faces of those whose lives he touched in some way.
Grief can be very isolating and yet universal at the same time. For me, writing is cathartic and I can share about what an amazing man my father was to me.
Develop a ritual or routine
In relationship to the above, I have found something that helps me quite a bit. I never realized how much I talked with my Dad on my phone on my daily walks until I resumed them a few months ago. Now I talk with him every time my feet hit the pavement and it brings me a sense of peace to continue those walks and talks with him.
You won’t ever get over your grief
I’ll speak to this more in a few years perhaps, but I’ve talked to a lot of people over the last several months and what I’ve heard time and time again, is that you don’t get over your grief. The edges soften, and memories that made you cry at one time may make you smile in bittersweet remembrance, but you don’t ‘get over it’ completely. Nor should you be expected to.
I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that the year of seconds is going to equally hard.
There are, shockingly, points of light along the way
My father was not a conventionally religious man, but I know he had a deep down faith and believe in God. I couldn’t even tell you the last time he went to church, and he was, by definition, a lapsed Catholic, but when we had a priest called in to perform last rites, I swear you could almost see a peace come over my father’s features and he passed away shortly after the priest came into the room. This is significant because it was on a Sunday, the priest was performing services and couldn’t get there until later in the day. I had also received a call at around 5:15 am that morning from the hospital that we needed to get back there.
The wallpaper on my computer changes randomly, and the next day the image was a beautiful sun breaking through the clouds…I kid you not. Ironically my Dad wasn’t one for ‘signs’ and such, but I knew without a doubt it was a sign for me.
I often look at the clock and see numbers such as 11:11, 2:24 (my birthday), and I know he sending me a signal.
I can laugh and joke about what he’s doing ‘up there’ (having a glass of wine with God) when he should be paying attention to what’s happening down here.
I have a beautiful bracelet that I wear constantly that has my dad’s ashes in it. It brings me immense comfort when the grief feels crushing and overwhelming.
There is no finish or end to mourning and grieving for your person. The death of that oh-so-precious loved one leaves you with a wound that will never fully heal, will never completely scar over, and that, perhaps, is as it should be. Grief is messy, uninvited, and yet is the only way we have to express how much we loved and were loved in return.