It has been nearly a year since my Dad passed away. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime has passed, and in others, it seems like it was just yesterday. In that time, I’ve gone through a range of emotions in my grief. I’m writing this not because I’m looking for sympathy, but because I know it’s a step that I need to take as part of my own healing. I want to also be clear that I speak only for myself. The rest of my family has had their own grief, their own thoughts, their own feelings. We all went through something incredibly profound together, yet we each had to walk through our own pain – on our own – to get to the other side. These are my thoughts alone.
My dad, Larry, died from complications a week after a major heart attack. He never regained consciousness after the heart attack, but we all were able to spend time with him and talk to him before he passed. I want to keep all the other details private for now, as the rest of that is not my story alone to share.
The death of a parent, despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.
– From a letter written to Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
It is crazy how grief works. So many times in this past year, I would be rolling along seemingly fine, and a memory would come to mind or a phrase would be said, and it would sideline me. This was unexpected for me, yet happens often. Despite the frequency, it seems to surprise me when it happens. Every. Single. Time. My relationship with my Dad was complicated, and that’s probably an understatement. He and I didn’t see eye to eye on very many things. The hurt each of us carried ran deep, and there wasn’t any getting around that. I love my Dad. He loved me. We loved each other the best that we could, and that meant not speaking to each other for the last three years of his life. These were the boundaries, and had to be, for so many reasons. In those final days with him, I got to say it all, and I believe with every bit of my heart and soul that he heard me. There were signs that he heard me, and in that I found peace. I have mourned the loss of my father many times in my life. This was not the first time we had not spoken for long periods of time – this one just happened to be the last. I truly believed that I knew how I would feel when he passed away, but I was not prepared. His loss, this grief, would break me open in ways that I could never imagine.
Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled. A person would speak to me unkindly – or even ungently – on the street or in an elevator, and I would feel myself ripping apart, the membrane of normalcy I’d pulled on to leave the house coming undone.
– Ariel Levy, The Rules do not Apply
In those first days, I mourned his loss – our loss, my loss. I was so incredibly sad that things had been the way they were. After that, I went numb for awhile. I don’t know for exactly how long because in the six or so months following his passing, I can only remember a handful of things. My timeline is pretty shot save for a few events that I can tell you actually happened. I do know that that numbness eventually turned to anger. I was angry that his life had been wasted and ruined by his parents, and that that had determined the father that I was to call mine. I was angry at a God that made our last moments with him in the ICU. I was so angry that I wasn’t sure I could believe in a God who would put any of us in this position. I don’t know how long the anger lasted either, but at some point I broke.
Grief is nothing but a painful waiting, a horrible patience. Grief cannot be torn down or scaled or overcome or outsmarted. It can only be outlasted. Survival is surrender to the brick wall [that is grief].
– Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior
When I say that I broke, I mean that all of those hurts – those that had been caused by my dad, those that had been caused by being raped, the lies I had been telling myself for a lifetime – came barreling to the surface. I had expected the sadness, and the anger, even. Of course it makes sense looking at it now – all of these feeling and emotions are all tied to together in one way or another. And yet, I had not expected this. It was as if my soul had broken open and all of that pain and hurt spilled out. It was just sitting there raw and exposed. I have never been more guarded, and yet more vulnerable, in my life. I was trying so hard to act as though I had moved through my grief, and was getting on with life, but the truth of it is, I really wasn’t. There was this pain – a constant bubbling underneath – that I had no clue what to do with. I didn’t really want to talk about it to anyone because after all that we had been through it felt overly self-indulgent, or like I was feeling sorry for myself, when everyone else had been hurting, and everyone else is having to move on, too. I went through the motions of daily life, and put on my brave face, but again, I don’t even remember most things that happened in those months. I wasn’t present – my mind, my heart – were somewhere else entirely.
Somewhere around the seven month mark, the fog started to lift a bit. I had been pushing down this pain I was feeling, but I knew this wasn’t a solution. My attitude was starting to reflect how I was feeling inside. I was snapping at my husband a lot, and I was starting to feel some physical effects as well. Looking back, the physical effects had been going on for months (and the snapping at my husband, too), but I was just starting to be able to feel, or pay attention to, something else.
There was this one moment where I realized I had to feel this pain. I had to feel it, and I had to speak it. I had to bring my pain into the light. I am not going to give many details here because this was a personal moment between Chris and me. For the first time in my life, I laid bare my soul. I told him every sorry thing I felt about myself and my body. I’ve talked about bits and pieces of this with various people and at various times in my life, but never so completely. I’ve never trusted handing anyone the whole thing – all of me. I hate my body. I’m not even talking about how it looks. I’m talking about the fact that it was taken, without my permission, and used. I’ve written about this specifically so I won’t go into it here. The shame and the anger that goes along with that is hard to avoid. I am used up. I’m never enough. I could never do enough to make my Dad proud of me, or make him love me the way I wanted him to love me. I let him down over and over again. I let my whole family down. I’m not enough. I’ve struggled with starting a business, and feel like a failure most days. I want to help others live their best lives, yet I can’t even live my best life some days. I’m not enough. I am not always the best wife or stepmother. I’m not lovable. I’m not worth it. I’m not enough. I’m not enough.
We think our jobs as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description for love. …What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.
– Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior
I brought every single terrible thing into the light. Friends, let me tell you something. Chris took those words. He listened to them, he thought about them. I believe he took them into his own heart. With seven words, he took all that pain, and gave me back love. They were words that no one has ever said to me. He spoke truth directly to my soul, and by the grace of God, I was able to hear them and receive them – and for perhaps the first time, start to believe them. The peace that has come from that alone was worth the risk of sharing my darkest thoughts.
This was not some magic fix. I’m still working on myself. I am still sifting through the rubble. I have not walked through this alone. My family and I have been there for each other. My closest friends have held the space for me so that I could grieve and feel however I needed to at any given moment. While much of it I had to work through on my own, I was never alone. I can say this, though. The brick wall of grief is just about gone. I had no idea the impact that my Dad’s passing would have on me, but even through all of this, I am grateful. My heart has been opened in new ways. I see pain and grief in others differently now. I’m trying not to dole out advice, or take away their pain. I’m trying to hold space for them, and love them and be a witness to their pain. I am closer to my husband, and to my family. I still catch myself taking time and new days for granted, but my heart knows that this life is short, and I’ve got to make it count. I know that I AM helping others live their best, healthiest lives, and I have to keep moving forward. I know despite the lies I like to tell myself, that I am enough. I am enough. Me. Just as I am.
In this past year, I’ve come to a peace with who my Dad was – a natural storyteller, a minister at one time, a chaplain and he worked the last several years of his life as a sheriff’s officer. He had a servant’s heart, and helped so many people. He couldn’t always show that to his own people, but he loved us. I’m at peace with how our relationship had to be. We did the best that we could. We loved each other in our own ways. It’s true that there are some hurtful memories. That being said, I’ve been flooded with some really sweet, poignant and downright hilarious memories, too. Those are the ones I’m choosing to keep close. Those are the ones I’m choosing most often to share with others – not because I want to paint things differently than they were, but because that is how I can honor him now. It’s how I can honor my family and the many, many wonderful moments that we shared. It’s how I can honor myself, and take care of my own heart. I can bring the happy into the light, too.
Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I loved well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.
– Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior
I knew that I had to share my story because I need to shine light in the darkness so things aren’t able to creep in there anymore. I also want people to know that grief is complicated – and we all experience it in our own ways. It stirs things up in us that we’d rather not face. And for some people that whole process lasts a day, while others can take years. There is no right or wrong way to grieve – there’s just your way, your path.
Now I want to say this. I was not in a deep depression (I know what that feels like), and if at any time I felt like I had needed professional help, I would have gone to see a therapist. At the time, it’s not what I needed. If at any time in the future I feel like I need it, I will work with a counselor. I have done this in the past, and would do it again if need be. If you are going through your own grief, and feel hopeless or like you can’t handle this on your own, please seek help. Most areas have grief support groups and therapists that specialize in grief. Your doctor or church can also offer you resources. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, the strongest people I know have sought help in order to better take care of themselves.
Grief not only affects us emotionally, but physically as well. There are actual physiological processes that happen in, and to, our bodies while grieving. I experienced some of those as well. In the second part of my series on grief, I will be talking about some of those things, along with how to support your body in the healthiest ways.
Love each other well, friends!