Young man sitting on a park bench contemplatively

The Grief I Carry After My Father's Death


Grief, I believe, is one of those things often misrepresented and misunderstood. To me it’s understandable because unless one has grieved, one cannot possibly begin to understand grief.

When someone is grieving, they are trying to heal. They are trying to remember someone they loved while also trying to move forward in life. Grief is hard work.

How does one recover from losing someone who meant so much to them? The short answer is they don’t. One never really recovers from the loss of someone they loved, they just learn to live with it.

I lost my dad when I was 15 years old, the only thing I can say somewhat confidently about his death is I will never stop grieving it until the day I die.

To grieve is to have loved, and to have loved is to have lived. I wish someone told me that when my dad died. I wish someone told me it was OK to cry, that it was OK to be sad. I’m almost 20 years old now, and I’m still sad about it. I’m not only sad about it, but I’m angry. I’m angry my kids won’t get to see their grandpa and my dad won’t be at my wedding.

I can deal with anger and sadness, and I trust they will subside sometime soon. But until the day comes when I believe I will be reunited with my dad, I will grieve. I will always miss him and wonder what life would be like with him in the picture. I look forward to that day and trust there will be plenty to say.

Until then, the journey continues toward trying to live a life my dad would be proud of.

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How Grief Affected My Physical Health After My Dad's Passing


Many people have heard of “broken heart syndrome.” Maybe not by name, but most likely they’ve heard stories of people passing away shortly after the loss of a loved one. I know this to be true, as my Grandfather passed away of a sudden heart attack less than a year after my Granny passed away. I always found it romantic when I heard of very elderly people that pass away holding each other’s hands.

A 2012 study published in the Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, found that “a person’s risk of having a heart increased 21 times over in the day immediately following the death of a loved one and six times over in the following week.

What I didn’t know is grief can actually cause real physical problems. That is, until my Dad passed away last year.

In the days and weeks that followed, my body and mind seemed to be stuck in a “flight or fight” response. It felt like the anxiety and panic were sitting in my throat. I was hyper-aware and the stress was building.

The first thing I noticed was the disruption of sleep. I would be awake at all hours or sleeping too much. I would wake up with the fleeting memory of a nightmare I couldn’t remember. No matter how much sleep I was getting, I felt like a zombie, walking through my day.

I broke my ankle and heel just a few weeks after my Dad passed away in a pretty bad fall. I had a very caring ER doctor who said falls and accidents increase during grief, and not just in the elderly, but in all ages (including children). In hindsight, the lack of sleep and distraction probably increased my typical clumsiness.

I began experiencing chest pains and a permanent tightness I couldn’t explain. It was bad enough my doctor referred me to a cardiologist who ran tests and couldn’t find anything. In the nine months since it has improved, but not resolved, and I still have days when it takes my breath away.

At first, I explained away the daily nausea as a reaction to my “fight or flight” response; it’s happened before thanks to depression and anxiety. When I discussed it with my doctor six months later, I had lost 20 pounds I couldn’t afford to lose. I had no appetite and when I did eat I prayed it stayed down.

I was also catching every cold and flu that went around. My immune system didn’t seem to be able to fight back like it should. In December, when I had the worst flu of my life, I really began to realize how much my lack of sleep, lack of exercise (thanks to 10+ weeks in a cast) and not eating properly was affecting my overall health.

Having fibromyalgia I know body pain; I live with it daily. Nothing prepared me for the pain I would experience in the months that followed my Dad’s passing. Every joint felt inflamed and every muscle ached. It felt like the longest and most severe fibro-flare I could imagine. Like I had been hit by a car I never saw coming.

I have been making more of an effort to improve my physical health since the new year. As a result, I also finally feel like I am grieving.

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What Do You Say to Someone Grieving When You Can’t Say It Will Be OK?


Many years ago, an old boyfriend asked me to tell him what my wildest fantasy was. I looked at him. “You really want to know?”

He nodded, eager.

So I leaned in close, lowered my voice, and told him how I wanted — more than anything — for someone to tell me that everything was going to be OK convincingly enough that I believed it.

I knew from the way his face fell that he was disappointed with my answer, but there was nothing else to say. It was the truth.

Everything is going to be OK.

It’s such a magical phrase, one of my favorites still. I’ve said it countless times to everyone I love, and once I had kids I found myself saying it to them constantly: everythingisOKitsOKitsOK all strung together to soothe them when they were sad or hurt or scared or over-tired or mad. I even say it in my sleep when they whimper next to me, just a reflex that pops out of my still-unconscious mouth, as instinctively a part of my parenting now as checking the toilet seat before I sit down or whipping my arm out across the passenger seat when I brake too fast.

I’ve said it to myself even more, probably a million times over the years, using it as a mantra to get through awkward phases and job losses and bad breakups and bad hair days. But when my mom died, it didn’t work. It just wasn’t true and I knew it.

Still, I tried:

“Everything is going to be OK,” I would say to myself while lying on the bathroom floor, the only place in my house with a door that locked so I could cry without scaring the kids.

Everything is going to be OK,” I whispered to my littlest when he was born and it hit me in a wave of terrible realization that he would never meet his grandmother, not once.

“Everything is going to be OK,” I tried to sing to the tune of the Christmas carols that brought me to my knees the first holiday season after she was gone.

Now the words were hollow and flat, not even touching the ache in my heart. Because here’s the thing: there is no “OK” in grief. There is the loss, and then there is the hole in your life shaped like the person you lost. That hole doesn’t fill back up, I have come to realize. Time might heal wounds but it doesn’t fill holes and it certainly doesn’t bring anyone back. It’s been three years and I still think I sometimes see my mother out of the corner of my eye in a crowded grocery store or driving down the highway. The best I can hope for is that the raw edges scar over and I don’t have to walk around torn open and ragged forever.

I think this is why people struggle so much to find the words when someone is grieving. What do you say when you can’t say it will be OK? How do we comfort each other when the simple truth is life can be hard and loss is inevitable and it can hurt like a son of a bitch pretty much forever?

And am I doing my kids a disservice by always promising that everything will be OK, when very likely it sometimes won’t be?

My youngest — the one who will never know his grandmother but has her eyes — came running to me last night, a fresh red welt on his forehead where he’d bumped it playing. I scooped him up, held him tight, and put my face down into his hair. Instinct kicked in and I started to say it, the usual, but then I paused and forced myself to inhale. I could smell his hair, the faintest traces of that baby smell that he had less of every day mixed with shampoo and the yogurt he had smeared on himself after dinner. His face was ruddy from crying and he grabbed fistfuls of my shirt and used it to wipe his eyes.

“I’m here,” I said quietly, trying it on. It felt right. It wasn’t a lie. “I’m here,” I said again, louder this time, and he softened into my chest, accepting that there was indeed space in me for him.

There is space in me for him. There is space in me for his brother and sisters too, and his father, and our families together and our friends and all of the people I love and see struggle and want so badly to reach out and say the thing that might help, the only thing we both know is true when we both know that maybe it’s not ever gonna be the kind of OK again that it used to be before:

“I’m here.”

It rings true because I think there’s space in all of us, in our hearts and in our prayers and on our couches and on our shoulder and in our ears. There’s space in our arms to carry together what is too heavy to carry alone. There is room to witness, and to witness is to love, and to love is enough, or more than enough, or maybe: it’s everything.

So it’s been a long time since anyone wanted to know what my fantasy was, but if anyone asks, I have a new answer. Just be there, I would tell them. Make a little space for me.

A version of this post originally appeared on LizPetrone.com.

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Healing My Grief


Healing grief isn’t all rainbows. It isn’t just that we choose the higher feeling thought and forget the pain. It also shouldn’t be swimming too far into the deep of the dark part of our broken hearts. Can we fix grief? No. It’s not something to be fixed. It’s something we can heal parts of and learn to live side-by-side with the rest. Some of the emotions can be healed, like anger and denial, but there will always be a bit of grief in our hearts because that grief is our love for the people we’ve lost.

Healing has to be a balance. Every day? Yeah… no. At certain points in my grief journey I have jumped onto a unicorn and rode off into the sunset. I have thought, “Forget all of this pain. I am going to lock it up in my heart… stuff it down… I am flying this unicorn into the light and I’m going to be joyful and eat pink cupcakes every day and pretend my heart isn’t on fire.” Why? Because some days that is all that kept me alive.

And you know what? That’s OK. Sometimes it helps me to be hopeful, to be grateful, to be joyful. Sometimes I need that unicorn to fly me off in my mind to a new life… one that isn’t on fire.

Does being joyful cover up the pain? No. Does looking for a rainbow make the pain go away? No. But you deserve to try to find your hope. You deserve to laugh out loud. You deserve to feel joy. Some people think spiritual mentors telling you to look for the love and light are only hiding their own pain. That is not me. I am putting my pain out there for all to know about. I am opening up the zipper on my shattered heart and doing my best to show you what’s inside. And I’m also trying to show you that there isn’t only darkness and pain inside of my heart — there is also love, there is also light. I accept both. I embrace both.

It has been 16 months since my husband died. Sixteen months that in some ways feels like 17 years. I miss him every. single. day. I still sometimes want to climb a mountain and scream and curse and yell.

Am I cured of my grief? No. There is a missing spot in my bed where my best friend used to sleep. There is a missing place at the dinner table, in the car, on the couch, and in my heart. Grief lasts forever because it is love. But it changes, it evolves, it softens, and you become a different person than you were before. I no longer recall what it’s like to live a life without a twinge of pain in my heart every day. I’m kind of used to this now.

Am I still in shock? No… and sometimes just a little bit… yes. Sometimes I step back and look at my life and I just cannot believe that this all really happened. That he is really, really gone and is never going to hold my hand or make me laugh again. I almost can’t breathe when I think that we will not grow old together. That he won’t be there when I’m old and grey to sit around a campfire with and recall our adventures.

I have been down in the dark hole of grief. I have sat down in that dark, cold hole in my mind and not wanted to climb out. I have wanted to stay deep in my grief because it’s where I could drown myself in my love for my husband. I felt that climbing out of that hole would be a greater and more exhausting excursion than I possibly had the strength for. How did I get out of that darkness? I got mad, I got angry, and I reached down deep and fought for my life. I had to believe I was still worthy of life, of love, of happiness. And all of those emotions raised me up out of that hole.

Grief for me is falling back and forth, round and round between all of the “stages.” Shock. Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Acceptance. Over and over. Sometimes all at once. What I was never told was that there is life beyond those stages. There is still grief beyond those stages. And those stages are just emotions. I still feel anger sometimes and have come to fully know that I’m going to be honest with myself about it. Feel it, name it, learn from it, heal it. I still have grief but it’s not like those first days, weeks, months.

I’m at the top now. I still have grief but I also can feel joy again. I see rainbows, again. I’m flying on a unicorn and spreading love and light because it feels good. It feels better than sitting in that hole not wanting to ever climb out.

Does being a widow suck sometimes? Yes. Do I have things about my life now that I don’t love? Things about myself that I don’t fully accept? Yes. I’m human. But, I’m working on it. I’m loving myself through it.

That’s part of the healing, part of the letting go for me.

Does pain bring every single person who experiences it a purpose? Of course not. Am I special because I believe my pain gave me a purpose? Heck no. I’m just a regular, broken-hearted girl. But I have found my purpose, and I am going to spend the rest of my days making other people feel less broken. Which in turn, makes me feel less broken.

I want you to know that life is both. It’s joy and pain. Rainbows and thunderstorms. Unicorns and lions. Light and dark. And both have beauty, meaning and purpose.

Your healing journey will not be all darkness. It also won’t be all rainbows, joy and unicorns. It will be both.

Be vulnerable. Be honest. Be raw and real, and this may help you see what you still are grateful for in your life. And those painful days? Love yourself through them until you are back into your light.

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A Letter to My Father on What Would Be His 60th Birthday


You would be turning 60 this year. We would be planning a secret trip to the store to get big “6” and “0” candles for you. We would be making you a German chocolate cake — your favorite — one you requested every year. We would be dimming the lights after dinner, proudly presenting your birthday confection while singing as little off-key as we could.

We’d be thinking about what kind of gift you would like, maybe collaborating ideas with each other to come up with the simple, perfect thing that would put a smile on your face and a glimmer in your eye. A James Taylor collection? Bruce Springsteen’s new book? Maybe something like that.

When I was younger and your birthday started to come and go without you, I often spent it reflecting on the celebration you were missing. But then I figured heaven must have German chocolate cake abound, so I decided you were probably OK in that department. But what about the candles? Well, you were a fireman, so I suppose whatever happens up there involving flames you’d be OK, too.

As I got older, your birthdays got a little more bitter. This isn’t fair, I would think. You should be here. We should all be able to be with you today, covering the whole damn kitchen with confetti if we want to just because we can, and because you’d be another year older. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It really would.

Now, I wonder with each passing year what kind of advice you’d have for me as you got older, and as I got older, too. What would we agree on, what would we laugh about? What would we be butting heads over? What kind of teachable moments would we share? What inside jokes would we have? Would we be able to do that thing where people communicate an entire conversation with just a series of facial expressions? Some days I feel like my “Fatherly Road Map” was cut off back when I was 13. Am I doing alright? Are you seeing me? Have I gone totally off-road? Are you giving me an other-worldly pat on the back from time to time? Or am I making you shake your head at me a little too often? You can get back to me on that.

I wonder how you’d guide me through the upcoming years of finishing grad school, starting my career, settling down. I’m marrying the most wonderful, loving, kind, supportive, thoughtful and caring man. You’d like him. I think someday he’s going to be a fantastic dad.

I will always miss you so heartbreakingly much regardless of the date on the calendar, regardless of the questions I do or don’t have answers to. But you know what helps the most? I strive to keep putting your best qualities into the world — your warmth, your kindness, your genuine nature, your supportiveness, your loving humor. It makes you feel a little bit closer, and that little bit means the world. Not just around your birthday, but certainly a little extra around this time of year.

I celebrate birthdays now. I might wish my friends and family a happy birthday four times that day. I might write them the sappiest Instagram posts social media has ever seen (and boy, would I like to hear what you have to say about social media). I do my best to take time out of my day for my loved ones as you did, to listen to them, talk with them, laugh with them, be with them. I do my best to be thankful for them, and for you, every single day. A very wise man once told me it makes the tough days a whole lot easier.

Happy Birthday, Daddio.

I love you always.

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