What Grieving the Loss of My Father Has Taught Me
I’d like to start off by mentioning that everything I write is unique to my own experience with grief. I am in no way saying this is the right way, or the only way, to cope with loss. None of the points I’m making came from any book (though I have been — trying to — read one), or counselor, or generic list of “the five or eight or 10 or 12 stages of grief.” No. In fact, my point is the exact opposite.
Grief is different. It’s messy. It’s unlike any other feeling or experience. It can’t so easily be broken down like other emotions. This is simply my experience. What I’ve learned, how I came to certain realizations, and the people who both helped and hindered my growth through the process. This is where I am, and what I know, well over a year after losing my dad.
1. Everyone’s initial reaction to grief is different. This should be obvious, and it is, until you find yourself wondering if you’re doing it right. I want to make it clear: there is no “right” or “wrong” way to react. This past year I have known eight, possibly even more, people who lost a parent in 2016. I have seen glimpses of all of them deal with it. One woman I knew lived here in my town, but her entire family lives in Japan. She knew of her father’s death the day it happened, but she did not speak of it until over three months later. Instead of people, she turned to her religion to help her through. Only then did she mention it to friends here. And even when she did, she kept it brief, positive and upbeat. As if describing a favorite movie or a poem that evoked a deep passion and love inside of her. That was her way. She has since passed away as well, and I miss her and her uplifting spirit dearly.
Another friend of mine lost his father. He said he didn’t cry at all for the first four days, and even then, it was brief. That was his way.
As for myself, I kept pushing myself to do what I had to do to make it through life. I felt I had responsibilities, things that needed to be done. The world did not stop spinning simply because my heart had fallen apart. I pushed and pushed and pushed. Maybe too hard. I kept going to all of my six classes. I missed a little work but refused my bosses’ offer for a leave of absence. I avoided the feelings because I didn’t know how to handle them. This lasted for months (and blew up in my face in the end). But that was my way. Some people have periods of trouble functioning or finding purpose or meaning in the world after losing someone they love. We all react differently, and none of us are wrong — we just react differently.
2. There will be triggers. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trigger is anything that evokes a certain memory or emotion in you that upsets you. This can be anything from seeing the person’s personal belongings, hearing a song, passing a car that is the same make and model as theirs, eating something that was once their favorite food, or even seeing someone on the street who looks like them. Some of these triggers are unpredictable and unavoidable. The other day, two of my coworkers were having a conversation and one of them said the words “January 26th.” In that moment, I completely froze. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t speak. I felt as if I couldn’t even breathe. I stood there, staring at the ground for two straight minutes. Thankfully, no one had noticed, and I took a deep breath and continued working, even though I felt as if someone had dropped a cinder block on my chest. It is a date I may never be able to hear without falling apart.
Triggers can be both destructive and therapeutic, depending on your state of mind at the time they occur. At times when you are already vulnerable, it is best to avoid these things if you can. I know I can’t pass the Motel 6 on Maple Road without crying (and bawling your eyes out while driving is usually not the safest idea), so I avoid going that way. And I know I can probably never enter that Spot Coffee again. So I won’t. Because it hurts too much. And that’s OK.
Other times, you may purposely look to certain triggers for comfort. When you want to remember the person, you may listen to a song that reminds you of them. I have an entire playlist that reminds me of my dad. I play it when I’m driving late at night alone. It brings up the anger I still feel towards him. The sadness. The happiness. And the pain. It allows me to feel everything I hold inside.
Maybe their memory makes you smile. Or maybe you want to cry about it. If that’s what you need in that moment, that’s OK. And that brings me to my next point.
3. It’s OK to cry about it.
4. It’s just as OK not to cry about it. Everyone copes differently. What’s important is not to judge yourself. Don’t allow yourself to feel shame for your reaction or lack of reaction to someone’s death. Everyone has their own way. It’s OK to cry. And scream. And curse the world, and the universe, or a higher power for taking away the person you love. It’s OK to feel whatever it is you feel. Feel sad. Feel lost. Feel a little bit broken. Feel f*cking angry if you have to. But try not to project those feelings on others around you. You are not angry with them; you’re angry at the situation.
5. There is no timeline for grief. By this, I mean a few things. First, when someone close to you dies, there are a lot of things that need to be done. Funeral planning, memorial services, and for close family and friends, gathering and distributing of the person’s belongings. Looking back on old memories can bring up a whole range of emotions, and I want you to know it’s OK to wait until you’re ready to go through these things.
After my father’s memorial, a few friends of his offered to talk with me about him. To tell me stories, reminisce and give me answers to the questions I’ve always had about him. It took me 10 months to accept their offer. I wasn’t ready to hear those stories, to learn any more than I already knew.
On my old Facebook account, I have hundreds of messages back and forth between us from when I was 16. It has been a year and eight months since I lost my dad, but I’m still not ready to read those messages. I’m not ready to read the words he wrote to me. I’m not ready to hear his voice in my head again. I’m not prepared to see his wild sense of humor and laugh, and then cry and beg the universe to just bring him back to me so I can read his words again. So I can hear his thoughts. And ask him questions.
I’m not ready. And that’s OK. Because one day, like with every other step I’ve taken in this grieving process, I will be.
Another thing I mean by “there is no timeline for grief” is that sometimes, people on the outside will have unrealistic expectations for your recovery from this grief. People like coworkers, friends, teachers, acquaintances, and even family that may cope differently than you. Sometimes, others may assume, suggest, or even outright say that grief should last a certain amount of time. They may say, even in the nicest way possible, that you should be over it by now. I’ve found that many people think grief should last a year, or six months, or some other ridiculous amount of time. I believe that is complete bullsh*t. How can you tell someone, especially someone who loved a person their entire lifetime, to get over it in a year?
Try to understand, maybe these people are trying to help you. But it’s possible their life experiences have not given them the skills they need to be supportive in the way you’d like them to be. I believe it’s OK to tell them you appreciate their concern, but their comment felt insensitive. And you would appreciate if they wouldn’t bring it up again.
Related to this…
6. Don’t let others tell you the way you feel is wrong. (And try not to be upset if they misunderstand the situation entirely.) What I mean by this is sometimes, people will say things that, unintentionally on their part, hurt you deeply. A woman I know once said to me, “Oh, well you didn’t really know your father, so I guess it wasn’t really that great of a loss.” While in fact, the situation is much more complicated than this. It was the most painful loss I have ever endured in my life. And possibly the reason for the greatest amount of change in my life.
People will say things like this in many situations. Like when a friend you haven’t seen in years, or rarely hang out with, passes away. They assume it isn’t that big of a deal or will be simple to get over when that is rarely the case. Remember, they don’t know your relationship with your loved one, how emotions affect you personally, or other factors that may go into the specific situation at hand.
Try to gauge their intentions. In my situation, the woman was kind. She was trying to be lighthearted and didn’t understand that what she said could be taken offensively. So I didn’t react. I understood her intention. If, however, they are being cruel or insensitive, it is OK to end the conversation and keep your distance from this person. At least during times you are feeling the most vulnerable.
7. You should find a healthy outlet. When I picture my dad in any circumstance, he is smoking a cigarette. Therefore, when I start to think about him, I too, light up a cigarette. And if it’s one of those long nights spent in my car listening to that gloomy old playlist, I am chain-smoking cigarettes. In fact, the majority of those trips land me right at the Rez. Where I’m 20 bucks shorter and ready to go home. When I get there, I’ll probably spend another hour in my car, leaned back in my seat trying to figure out the impossible.
Now this is by no means a healthy coping mechanism. In fact, it’s obviously the complete opposite. I’d like to stop doing this, but I’m not at a place where I’m ready. I will be, someday. But in the meantime, I’ll try to add more positive coping mechanisms to my life.
Learning a hobby is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Especially if that hobby reminds you of happier times spent with the person. If they were a musician, pick up a guitar. Think of them as you play. Write a song for them. Or for yourself. I didn’t know my dad’s hobbies, or really, much of anything about him at all. But I know he wrote poetry, once. Maybe I’ll write a poem for him someday. I don’t know if that poem will come from a place of anger or love. But I know it will help me cope with whatever it is I’m feeling in that moment. One day I’ll read the books that were his and learn what he learned from them. Try to feel what he felt.
Find something that makes you feel something, but mostly importantly, brings you joy as you learn and you grow, and become capable of a new skill.
8. Find ways to express yourself. On one of those tear-filled nights in my car, I had smoked one too many cigarettes. I began to feel sick, and restless. I suddenly felt the need to write it all down. Everything I was feeling. Everything I was thinking. But as soon as I sat down to try, I couldn’t get the words out. I was trembling. It had been a total of less than five minutes and I already wanted to smoke again. So I went back to my car, took a deep breath and pressed record. The recording was an hour and 14 minutes long. I sat there, and I told the five-day-long story of losing my dad. How it felt, what I did. What everyone said. Hour by hour. Day by day, I went through the whole thing and just allowed myself to feel every part of it. It was five months after I had lost him. My memory is poor, and I remember saying on the recording, “I just never want to forget this.”
Whether you ramble in a diary or on a blog, write a song, or a poem, tell a friend, or tell yourself, if you need to talk about it, let it out. And if you’re not ready, let it be.
None of this is to tell you not to seek help. There are many incredible resources out there. From counseling, to books, to simply talking with other human beings. If that 12-step process to handling grief will help you, so be it. If you religion heals you, let it. If writing, or singing, or screaming help you, do it. These are simply my thoughts, and my way. On your journey, you will find your own way. I just hope maybe this helps you feel a little less alone. A little less like maybe you’re doing it wrong. I wrote this because for a long time, I felt like maybe I didn’t know how to properly grieve. I know now there is no wrong way to grieve. We are all different. And we will all find our own ways to deal with this pain. I hope you find yours.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Thinkstock image by danr13