Sorry My Dad is Dead: A Primer in Grief
Grief is not a one-time event. My Dad died when I was 27 years old and he was 53. We were very similar personalities and very close. It took me a long time after he died to see him more clearly and less idealistically. That’s the thing about grief – it develops. It blossoms with new, at first terrible, insights that peel open life like a slowing shattering firework.
The State of Grieving
There’s something to be said for ‘pre-grieving’ – the kind of sadness one has when they know their loved one is not long for this world. My Dad died unexpectedly but was sick for a long time with no explanation. For about a year prior to his death, I created a project for myself to decide what I believed happened after one dies. I read books, watched movies, and wrote out my thoughts. One book, Richard Matheson’s “What Dreams May Come,” later made into a movie starring Robin Williams, had a particular poignancy.
After he died, I expected everyone could see it on my body and read it on my face. I was so raw. I remember describing it as it was like I was a solid form that burned down to carbon ashes then, cruelly reformed, only to burn down again. Always the truth teller, I was frustrated with euphemisms like ‘passed away’ and ‘on to a better place.’ HE FUCKING DIED! He disappeared, just like that.
Bearing the Unbearable
I remember reading books with titles like, “The Orphaned Adult” and “When Parents Die.” Though I was grateful to still have my Mom, much of that book resonated with me. One author describes a dynamic with his wife in which they were a table with three legs. The stress of grief was too much to bear and they later divorced. Years of reflection leads me to this same conclusion with my family of origin. Our family of four was now three and we were fundamentally unbalanced. Over time, as the fault lines were exposed, our cohesiveness crumbled.
You Never Get Over It
A few weeks into grieving, a friend of mine came over to just be with me. That’s really the best thing to do for a grieving person. I was keeping myself busy, building something, and we were chatting. It’s hard to know what to say and how to be after a major loss. Here’s an example of what not to say. My friend drifted to the topic of imagining her own father dying. She started talking about not knowing what she’d do or how she’d handle it. Internally, I was screaming, “NO SHIT! YOU THINK *I* KNOW WHAT I’M DOING???” Externally, I felt the pull to comfort her. Mind you, this was well before I became a shrink.
I think it’s natural to imagine one’s self in another’s shoes and even an expression of empathy. I appreciate what she was trying to do. She was just as lost as I was in this department. At the same time, I had no words of wisdom for her and my well of comfort was already so dry, it was a strain to offer any to her. Now, I can safely offer the advice to others that if you’re imagining yourself with the same loss, don’t process it with the grieving person.
He’s Still My Dad
Immediately after, I wanted to jump into counseling others in hospice as a way to work through my own unbearable feelings. Nearly two decades later, I think of him every day. I try not to associate sadness with his memory. I have an active, yet different and unsatisfactory relationship with him. I still want to tell him about my accomplishments and wonder if he knows about the milestones in my life. The grief is not what binds him to me. Any time I choose, and some times when I don’t, I can pick up that magnifying glass, remembering all the acute details surrounding his demise, and sink into that same well of grief. These days, I am purposeful. Focusing on the artifacts of his life, collecting the evidential curio of his existence, I polish the cumulative imprint he made on my life and character.