Today, March 1st marks three years since my Dad suffered a minor heart attack that brought him into the ER for a “routine” procedure. Two hours later, he was on various forms of life support and the “sickest man in the hospital”. Two months later, in a different hospital, in the early morning hours on May 6th, he passed away quietly, surrounded by his immediate family. It has been (almost) three years since I lost my dad and this is the first time, that I’ve felt clear-headed enough to really think about what the last three years have been like – how I’ve felt, how I’ve changed, my perspective on life after death and what is most important now. Mostly, I finally have a handle on my grief in a way where I can reflect on it without being overcome by it. This just happened. I just made it here. It took three years to get to this point. So, I thought I’d take a few moments and openly reflect on my personal journey. From what I’ve learned and now know, our journeys through grief are all uniquely our own but they also follow patterns that ebb and flow, similarly. I know I still have so much to learn and will continue to grow from my personal life experiences but here’s what I know today.
In the Jewish faith, your community, immediately following the death of a loved one, surrounds you. There is a reason for this. The initial mourning period of 7 days literally came and went. I honestly don’t remember most of it. There was a lot of crying, food, prayers, looking at pictures, retelling of stories, some laughing and general reminiscing. Mostly, I listened. I remember wanting to soak up anything and everything I could about my dad. Having my community around me, gave me an invaluable gift. The gift of my dad when I was too shell-shocked from what had just happened: from burying my 61-year old, healthy dad. I remember bits and pieces of the first seven days. I remember the friends who came that I never expected to show up. I remember the family that flew in to be with us. I remember one of my closest friends taking me into her arms, saying, “Don’t worry. We got this. I’ve got you. I’ll take care of everything.” I doubt that she remembers even saying that to me but I’ll carry her words with me, forever. I remember lying in my bed, looking out the window while crying uncontrollably, desperately searching for signs that my dad was still with me. I was confused. I was sad. I was in shock. And I remember trying to be a mom to two young girls, who needed their mom, when I needed my dad.
Those 7 days passed in a blur and then 30 days passed just as quickly and then 100. People disappear. They don’t mean to. I don’t begrudge them. I’m sure I’ve done it too. But after 2-4 weeks, the phone calls stop coming in, friends stop coming by, the check-ins slow down, there are no more lasagnas in the fridge. Life resumes. You may not want it to but life goes on and friends and family get back to their own routines. You don’t. I didn’t. When most went back to their own lives, I retreated into my personal cocoon of hellish grief. Around 6-weeks post burial, I was no longer shocked. I was in actual mourning even though I didn’t really understand what I was feeling. I was depressed but didn’t know it. On the one hand, I knew what had happened and that my Dad had passed but I couldn’t quite make sense of it. It was like one part of my brain was arguing with the other part. You know the idea of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other? I experienced that, first-hand.
“Your dad is dead. Go back to your life.”
“No, he’s not…how could you say that?”
“He’s gone, damnit. Just deal.”
“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”
“You’re an adult. Be strong for your girls. Your dad is dead. Move on.”
“No, he can’t be dead. He’s just on vacation…and fuck you!”
Looking back on it, I silently drifted through and experienced the textbook stages of grief. I was in absolute denial that my Dad could be gone. He was 61-years-old, for g-d sake and had been in perfect health. This couldn’t be real, couldn’t be my life. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. It felt like he was on vacation or maybe just hadn’t checked in with me in awhile ‘cause after all, he’s busy at work, right? When driving, I’d see a man walking down the street who looked like my dad or whose gait reminded me of my dad’s. My first thought would be: Yes, finally, there’s my dad. But then I had to remind myself of my painful reality. My dad was buried in a nearby cemetery and I’d never see him again. I would literally have to say these words to myself over and over because this was the only way I’d eventually end up really hearing and believing it. I can only describe this first year, after my Dad passed away, as being on a constant hamster wheel of grief - fluctuating between shock, denial, anger and sadness – every waking moment of every single day. I felt cheated.
I read articles on losing parents or loved ones, went to my therapist weekly and poured through books about grief and life cycles. The common thread was this: You have to live in it; you have to walk through your own sea of grief and allow it to consume you. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, to experience the grief…as long as you experience it. So, I succumbed to the numbness, the pain, the daily fits of anger or sadness, the crying breakdowns in the shower, holding my dog as though my life depended on it. And then every day at 3pm, I’d pull myself together, pick myself up and collect my girls from school. I was determined to show them that I was holding it together in the face of personal tragedy and I would be okay, no matter what. Yes, they saw me cry and we talked about my dad frequently but more often than not, I was their mommy and they needed me to be strong…so I was. This is what we do. We put our needs and our feelings on the back burner so we can be the parents that our children need. And while I wanted and meant to do this, it was hard, and no one got it. People don’t understand why you’re not smiling; why you’re still in your pajamas at 3pm; why you haven’t returned calls in a week (or four). Most people don’t understand. I know everyone means well. I do. And I don’t begrudge anyone for how they did or didn’t act, in my most difficult moments. It just is what it is. This is a part of the grieving process. Some of it has to be done alone.
When we abruptly slammed into the one-year Anniversary of my Dad’s passing, something shifted. It was as though one cloud lifted while something else, more gruesome, replaced it. It felt like a layer of dirty film covered everything. Nothing was fun. I didn’t want to be happy and no one got this. My mind and body were suddenly acutely conscious of the loss in my life and it consumed me in a different way. My mom told me that she learned, in her grief group, that the second year is often more difficult for immediate family members. It was. I think when the shock, denial and anger stages lifted; acceptance was insanely painful to process, which led to an emotional roller coaster. I felt and finally knew, in every bone of my body, that I’d never see my dad or hear his voice, again. That kind of painful recognition – especially for someone who is too young, healthy and/or full of life – is the hardest to cognitively and emotionally reconcile. And if most of your “support system” disappears after the first few months, it’s really gone after the first year. I felt very alone. While I knew there were people I could talk to, I didn’t want to reach out. In some ways, I forgot how to ask for help. It was easier to stay cocooned in my mind and alone in my bed. Even my own mom and brother tried to share their experiences with me but I honestly didn’t want to hear them. We were all experiencing grief in our own ways, and dealing with the loss of my dad, so differently. Looking back on it, I realize that I wasn’t able to be there for them because I needed to experience my own grief, on my own terms. Maybe wrong, maybe right. I don’t know. It’s what I had to do to get through it.
It was around the 2nd year Anniversary of my Dad’s passing that I “woke up”. Really. One day, all of a sudden and for no specific reason, the constant tears slowed down. And while I seemingly resumed some feelings of normalcy, reminiscent of life before my dad passed, a new “normal” became my constant. I still thought about my dad every day but it wasn’t always accompanied by an onslaught of emotions. A memory, thought or story could pass through and I was able to enjoy it privately or share it…and then resume whatever I had been involved in. I need to be clear here - the grief didn’t disappear altogether. In fact, the first 4 months after the 2-year Anniversary were the worst! It was like a constant deluge of tears… almost like the Final Release! But then it really changed. It lifted. It took on a different form. Instead of being overwhelming, exhausting, numbing, constant, and life halting, it eased. It came more infrequently and wasn’t as heavy. That’s how I can best describe it. It didn’t and doesn’t weigh me down as it did before. In fact, crying has become a necessary but easy release instead of a dreaded part of the process. Mostly now, some type of trigger instigates my sadness, so I call it Triggered Grief. This allows me to understand what my grief used to look like versus how it impacts me now. It is still grief but it is different.
In the worst of it, when I was in the weeds of my grief, I skipped celebrations, missed life events and just marinated in it. There are weeks and months missing from my memory - where I literally don’t remember helping my girls with school work, extracurricular activities, driving carpool, making meals, lunches, or any of my other “mommy responsibilities”. I did not want to be happy or share in anyone else’s happiness. I didn’t want “to deal” with anything or anyone. I remember it felt like I was just putting one foot in front of the other, going through the motions and getting through the days. I cried a lot but thought about my dad, even more. It completely consumed me. Every day, all day long, I’d think, what would he do? What would he say? I wish he were here so we could talk about this. This was an odd feeling and an even weirder realization because I rarely acted or thought this way when he was alive. While we had a great relationship, I was pretty independent from early on and I was never one to call him to “approve” of my decisions or tell me what to do. That just wasn’t me so I had to reconcile what was real versus what I was making up, within the process of my grief.
It was about this time, around 2 ½ years past his death, that I started to realize an ugly secret about losing our loved ones: in death, we remember very skewed versions of them. I loved my dad and we were close but he also made me crazy, mad, sad…all of it. The first two years following his passing, I only remembered the “good stuff”. He was perfect and our relationship was perfect. I can now look at who he was and what we had, realistically. I think this makes my memories better and my grief more accessible. I have a handle on it because I’ve re-trained the way I think about my dad, who he was, what our relationship was and what I really miss about him. When there is a trigger and the grief comes now, it makes sense to me. So, I let it in, deal with it and then let it go.
I think of my grief now as waves in the ocean. The emotional waves comes in – sometimes heavy, pouring down and around me, drowning me – and then, they recede and I’m able to swim forward, with my head above water. I’m no longer consumed by sadness but I do think about my dad every day. Most of the time, though, I’m left with a feeling of contentment or even happiness. No doubt, the triggers still show up. Usually by a smell, a song or a movie. A memory of something that my dad loved, something that we shared, something that one or both of my girls remember and talk about – all of these things CAN do me in, in a matter of seconds. But usually they don’t. Sometimes an emotional trigger turns into a good “ugly cry”, or as I more commonly call it, a storm of emotions. These emotional storms are much shorter now, usually lasting 20 minutes or so. And while I may look like I’ve just had a massive allergic reaction (all puffy and red), I feel a lot better when they subside, when the storm recedes. I tell my girls (and remind myself) that these are my personal storms of emotion and I have to weather the storm to get through it. While I consciously understand that the dissipating grief is a good thing, it’s also terrifying. I’m scared I’ll forget my dad’s voice or worse yet, my girls will forget him entirely. This is my newest stage of grief.
I’m pretty sure, at this point, that I’ll think about my dad every day for the rest of my life. These thoughts, however, have taken on new meaning. My thoughts are not consumed with anger or sadness but rather what life after death may look like and where my dad might be; or how my dad would want us to remember him; or even what his opinion would be about our President’s antics. When I hear one of his favorite songs or see a movie he loved, I enjoy it in his honor. I hope my girls remember his laugh, creativity, loving soul and gentle heart, too. These thoughts are no longer all consuming and they no longer send me into the depths of depression the way they used to. I miss my dad at family dinners, lifetime celebrations, vacations and even the annoyingly, intrusive phone calls I used to get. What I’d give to get one of those calls now. I’ve begrudgingly accepted and reconciled the “new normal” of my life without my dad. And I really understand that life, whether we like it or not, is messy. As we get older, it gets messier. I’m just trying to figure out how to live in the mess and still love my life. I think my dad, wherever he is, would approve. And as my therapist always reminds me, it is of utmost importance to “be kind to yourself.” So, I’m being kind to myself by allowing my grief to run its’ course, whatever that may be or how it may look. I don't pretend that everything is okay when it's not and you might see me in my pajamas, at 3pm in the carpool lane. But I can now say that I'm authentically doing my best to enjoy the mess within the journey.