Here, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned — and will always be learning — over the course of what I’d like to call my 10-year swimming lesson.
It’s not like when you fall and scrape your knee and a few Band-Aids will leave you feeling good as new. Grief requires much more time to heal than a physical injury, and you need to give yourself grace throughout this process. Meet yourself where you’re at – wherever you are. For quite a while in the “beginning,” probably about the first five years, whenever someone would unknowingly ask about my dad I could feel my heart start to pound in my chest, my hands would shake and a tightness would take hold in my throat. My insides felt as though they had just evaporated and were simply not there anymore. I couldn’t make eye contact with the kind, well-intentioned person who thought they were simply being considerate when asking about my parents. I was sure the fact that I could barely speak the words even after five years, without sending myself into hypertension, might have seemed utterly ridiculous. But you know what? It isn’t ridiculous. Each of those people understood, many were remarkably comforting and empathic, and some of them had been there too. Give yourself the kindness along the way that others give you.
2. Words don’t make it better, but presence of loved ones and sincere understanding does.
A lot of people initially tell you to be strong, that time heals all wounds, or that your loved one is watching over you from a better place – and they genuinely mean well when they say it. At the time, you might think, “Be strong? I’m barely able to be upright and convert oxygen to CO2 right now. And who are you, Father Time?” But what I personally found most helpful in the immediacy after my dad’s passing were moments when someone said something to the effect of, “I love you, and you don’t have to be strong. I’ll be right here.” It’s the times I was embraced where I was at in my grief that I felt the most comforted, in whatever state that may have been. The only way to recover from grief is to work through it – over, under and around are not options. Just through. Sometimes, this means that you need someone to sit with you and let you say, “this sucks,” and hand you another spoonful of Nutella straight out of the jar.
3. Don’t make it your elephant.
Other people probably need to talk about it, too. For a long time, neither my mom nor I wanted to push the other to talk. It was raw and sensitive, and both of us were feeling fragile and shaken. In these situations, I’ve found that it’s not that no one wants to talk about it; it’s often that no one wants to upset anyone else by talking about it. But please, oh please, grab that conversational life ring when it’s thrown out to you. Don’t try to go through it alone for fear that you or someone else might get emotional for a little while. Emotions are a natural part of our chemistry, intricately and uniquely woven into each one of us. They’re not something to be feared. It’s part of the process; we need our people to help build us back up when it’s too great of a task to pursue it on our own. In time and with baby steps, I’ve learned how to have these conversations more gracefully. I’ve learned that sitting with my vulnerabilities — as I’m ready to — and getting to know them is the key to growth. In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, “Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
4. The day doesn’t come when it “gets better.” But you do.
Not exactly the news you were hoping for, I know. But in all I’ve learned about grief over the years, this is perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve come to understand. While having a conversation one day about life and the healing process with my mother — who is one of the strongest women I know — she looked at me with a sigh and after a contemplative pause, said this, “It doesn’t get better, and it never becomes OK. But you get better at how you carry it, and move forward from there.” It’s one inch at a time, then one day at a time, and then days become weeks and weeks become months, months become years. And somewhere in there, while it’s never perfect, a day comes when the fog starts to lift and clarity settles in its place, and you can pick your head up again and begin to move forward one little step at a time.
5. Little gifts come in the least expected packages.
I always smile at the sight of garbanzo beans, and I nearly cried when I found my recipe for baked ziti. Whenever I was being silly as a kid, my dad would say, “you’re full of garbanzo beans, kid!” To this day I don’t know why he said it – I suspect it was because the name sounded funny (and as a consequence, I grew up thinking that garbanzo beans were a figment of my dad’s imagination. You can imagine my shock upon first discovering them at the grocery store). My dad loved cooking but never wrote down a single thing, so I didn’t have any of his recipes for the longest time. One day this past summer, my grandmother surprised me with my dad’s recipe for baked ziti. It had turned up and she asked if I wanted it. I looked at the familiar handwriting on the slightly yellowed paper which was aptly titled, “Petey’s Zitis,” and began to feel a lump in my throat and the sting of a tear in my eyes. I never imagined finding myself so emotional over a pasta dish, and yet there I was. Both of these things are beautiful reminders of some of my most cherished memories and of his dearly missed personality. They are also a reminder that sometimes, even the happiest memories bring a few tears when they come to visit. One of the most useful things I’ve learned to do is allow those moments to be felt as both happy and sad, and acknowledge the value of each side of the coin even in the littlest of moments.
6. They’ll still be teaching you years after they’ve gone.
I came to value some of my most treasured experiences as such long after they took place. My dad told me when I was 11 or 12 that, “thank you,” is the best prayer you can say, that it makes the rough days a whole lot easier. It’s what he said when he woke up each morning, and when he went to bed each night. The lesson was completely lost on me at the time – but now, as an adult, I get it. I’m so, so thankful that he shared that with me while he could. Simply, “thank you,” is one of the most beautiful and pure prayers I could imagine, and perhaps the one that I utter the most frequently along with, “Please,” “Help me,” and occasionally, “WTH?” My dad taught me how to make pancakes when I was 6 (giving credit to Aunt Jemima where it’s due), which is certainly not a skill a 6-year-old necessarily needs in their repertoire – but the memories of my dad patiently showing me how to mix the batter without making a giant mess and pour it to make the perfect shape of my choosing became the springboard for my love of cooking for others. And little did I know that the morning we stood in his home office donning paint-splattered pajamas and admiring the creation we had just made on an empty wall with my watercolor paint set, will always stand out in my mind as the first example I was given of how beautiful it can be to throw the rule-book out the window and think outside the box.
7. Don’t let the dark put out the light.
I can’t sit here waxing poetic about the process of grieving and coping, and hopefully I haven’t been giving that impression. It isn’t pretty or poetic, and it’s not all reflecting on impromptu paint sessions and ziti recipes. In fact, it’s quite ugly and painful at times. And more than likely, some of the memories associated with it are ugly too. My dad was not well at the time of his passing, sudden as it was. He was sick. He was struggling with depression. His warm, loving energy and spark had been worn down, diminished. He confided in me one day that he felt useless, and he had been fighting an uphill battle to quit smoking for years. Despite how prevalent his hardships may have been towards the end of his life, it took me a long, long time to truly learn that they did not change the person he was to me. They didn’t change his gentle, clever, supportive nature as I remember it, and they don’t make him any less loving or kind. I may have to consciously keep the happy memories at the forefront of my mind; I may have to remind myself not to focus on remembering the version of him when he was sick and struggling to get through each day. But just because I have to prioritize my memories, it does not take anything away from the good ones. The struggles and the ugliness of loss do not change the person you loved so dearly. The hard times are a part of the story and cannot be edited out, but they do not take away any of the things I loved most about my dad. Those things will stay with me and my family forever.
8. Know it wasn’t part of the plan.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been striving to have a close relationship with God and truly be connected and rooted in my faith. I never doubted the presence of God or His goodness. God and I were tight, until it came to losing my dad. Suddenly I couldn’t stop questioning my faith whenever I thought of my dad and how my family’s life was turned upside down on a seemingly normal Tuesday afternoon in eighth grade. Why did that happen? How could it have been part of His plan? How is it fair? How could He have allowed so much pain? These questions always left me feeling empty and rattled to the bone at the notion that maybe the God I trusted and loved possibly had a hand in something as traumatic and horrendous as this. It wasn’t until very recently I finally had an epiphany — He didn’t. It wasn’t part of the plan for my dad, for me, or for our family. It wasn’t what God intended for him. I believe it isn’t what God has in mind for a single soul that’s grieving someone close to their heart. What was the plan for me, then? Perhaps it is all of the healing that has occurred within the past 10 years for me, and all the healing that will keep forging on relentlessly from here. All of the growing, all of the learning, all of the strengthening, and the many people who have given me a helping hand and shown a kind, gentle heart. And every experience I’ve had since then in which I’ve been able to use my journey to help someone else cope with grief and loss in some small way. Even my decision to pursue a health profession and dedicate my career to serving others in a field that incorporates both physical and mental healthcare – to me that has God written all over it. I believe He is taking the pain of my grief and loss and molding it, shaping it carefully and tenderly over time to become a glowing, beautiful, freeing and life-giving thing for me. I believe He is teaching me how to swim.
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