Is This What Grief Looks Like?
In June 2016, I got some news that changed my life. It came from the staff member at the assisted living facility where my dad lived. She was calling to give me an update on dad, since he had been admitted to the hospital the day before. She let me know he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. It didn’t register at first. I had to ask her to repeat it because I thought I misunderstood her. Nope, I heard her right, it’s just that I didn’t want to believe it. I lost it after that. By “lost it,” I mean that I burst out crying in public, on the sidewalk during my break at work. I could not believe what I was hearing.
That was the beginning of my first level of grief — shock mixed with rage. This wasn’t what people often think of when they think of rage (i.e., The Incredible Hulk level), but it was an inner rage that showed itself through sarcasm, negativity and impatience. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Dad, or our family. Hadn’t we already been through enough? My mother had stage 4 ovarian cancer and was doing OK, so I didn’t expect it to happen to my dad, too. I didn’t think I could handle having two sick parents. So for at least a few weeks, I chose not to accept it.
I was in denial. I figured we were going to figure this out — Dad was going to go to the doctor, get the treatment he needed and be OK. He was my dad, after all. He had survived much worse things. He was strong and had a good approach to life. So after the initial shock and sadness, I compartmentalized it and dove right into my work. Over the next few weeks, I started receiving calls and messages from the assisted living facility asking for my help with taking Dad to his appointments and just being there for him. I made excuses and said I needed to work. I would come by once in a while and spend time with him, but I never stayed long. This was simply because I couldn’t face seeing my dad this way. The less I saw him, the more I could stay in denial.
At the end of June, my sister visited from Florida to help out with Dad. While she was here, I spent more time with Dad because having her around made the experience more bearable. We would watch TV, go to doctor’s appointments, and just talk to each other. Slowly I started to accept what was happening to my dad, but I still remained positive. I had to believe he had hope, that all of this would be over soon. It all came to a head when we went to an oncologist’s appointment, and the doctor had to give us the bad news. He let us know that Dad was too weak for chemo because of his heart condition. It was too dangerous to treat him. In other words, it was too late. He was too weak for chemo due to his heart, and too weak for heart surgery due to his cancer. It was a catch 22, and it had caught up with him. He didn’t have that much longer. After that meeting sunk in, I became really sad. I skipped right over the bargaining stage and right into depression. I continued to function normally, but deep down I was really sad. I realized for the first time that I didn’t have much time left with Dad, and I needed to make the most of it.
We spent more time together the next couple of months, as I watched my dad deteriorate. His condition got too severe for the assisted living facility to take care of him, and I moved him into a local nursing home. He continued to get worse, and his memory faded. He needed constant care. He lit up when I entered the room. With my sister back in Florida and me being the only family near him, I was the only family he saw. I visited him as much as possible, and then in September, he fell unconscious and had to be put in the ICU. He was in and out of ICU for the next month. One evening that month, I met with a prospective hospice center. The representative met me in the lobby of the hospital where my dad was admitted. She was unprepared and unprofessional. This type of behavior always bothers me, and normally I resort to frustration and impatience. However, because I had been keeping in my sadness for so long, I began crying uncontrollably in front of her, telling her everything that bothered me. Afterwards, it felt so much better. I finally released all the sadness I was holding inside. I hadn’t realized how depressed I was because I was focusing so much on keeping it together.
Dad slowly got worse. The last week of September, he was conscious and well enough to leave the hospital and return to the nursing home. On October 9, hospice was called in, and that night he passed away peacefully. Since I had gone through some of the stages of grief while my dad was dying, I thought when he passed I would pick up where I left off. But grief doesn’t work that way. No matter how prepared I thought I was before my dad passed, when he did die, it blindsided me. There was no more going back. No more chances to talk to him, say “I love you,” or ask him anything. Even if I would have prepared for a year, it wouldn’t have mattered. Once I realized he was gone forever, it hit me so hard, it took my breath away. For months after, little things would set me off. One minute I would think, I can’t believe he’s gone, and the next minute I would be crying uncontrollably. There would be sadness, followed by shock, followed by anger and then more sadness. My grief didn’t come in a perfectly wrapped package. It didn’t let me know that these are the stages, and that I would move through them one by one. It’s not a game. It’s real life — the hard, brutal and nasty part of life that asks me, “Are you strong enough to handle this?”
Nine months later, I am still going through grief, and I’m OK with it. However, now it’s more of a see-saw; I will go a few weeks feeling great and not feeling a thing, and then something will remind me of my dad, or I’ll start thinking about him, and a huge sadness will go over me. I will have to step away from my normal activities for a few days, just to give myself time to process the feelings. This isn’t out of the ordinary, but a normal part of grief, and it takes time.
I have now thrown out any belief that there is such a thing as moving neatly through the stages of grief and coming out whole again and forgetting it ever happened. That doesn’t exist. Loss changes you — forever. I will go through the rest of my life with a hole in my heart, and I must give it time to heal. That comes in many forms for everyone, but it’s important to allow yourself to go through it. There are no shortcuts — just the messy experience of grief in all its shapes and sizes.
Right now, I am feeling sad, and my chest hurts a little. There’s still that pain I feel from losing someone I love. It sucks because I don’t want to feel this way. But then I take a deep breath, and tell myself it’s OK. I’m kind of getting used to this feeling. It’s like a fresh wound that is slowly healing. Eventually there will be a scar that will remind me of Dad. For now, I will let the wound heal naturally.
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