A Bit of What I've Learned in the Face of Loss 6 Months In
It’s been a little over 6 months (which feels like 6 minutes) since I lost my dad. I’ve learned about the excruciating journey of loss & grieving thus far but I am also strikingly aware of the fact that I’ve taken only tiny baby steps into my new reality in the scheme of it all. I am just a 20-something girl who simultaneously knows nothing and far too much.
Entering the After of the ‘Before & After’ Life Event
I think that part of the reality of mourning is recognizing that life as you knew it is never coming back since losing someone who was so intricately tied to your everyday existence is life altering. (I originally typed ‘is’ instead of was and had to correct it to the past tense, which just ironically proves the point of my last sentence). There are few events in life that are truly and completely irrevocable...the kind that you cannot go back from, no.matter.what. Events that change who you are and your lens instantly and permanently. Those moments that mark your life as ‘before and after’. Some of them are happy, like becoming a parent. And some of them are sad, like losing a close family member. These ‘before and after’ events impact how you move through the world, for better and for worse. There is no going back.
My life is now marked by the eras of ‘while my dad was alive’ and ‘after losing my dad’. Because no happy news will be as happy without getting to share it with him. And sadness will only be deeper without having him in my corner. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve felt like “I can’t believe that my dad died, I need to tell dad” or “I just need to go hug dad and cry in his arms as he comforts me because MY DAD died.” I know that sounds crazy but he was my dad...my support system and cheerleader. So really it just feels natural to seek out his comfort on my worst days. There are just some things that warranted me reverting back to a little girl who seeked out the comfort that only my dad could give and this is the most warranted thing of all.
On the flip side, I know that on the days my heart will feel it’s fullest, I will still feel the deep hole that his death left in it. My dad will never meet my children. I will never get to show him the house that I settle down in. The list goes on and on and will be filled with so many big and small things. Like all good (not perfect) parents, he suffered when I suffered and he was happy when I was happy (and vis versa). Today I want to cry in his arms and I know that on other days I will long to share my happiness with him and will be robbed of a piece of it for eternity.
Facing the Shock
It goes without saying that shock is such an enormous part of mourning. It’s like searching for evidence on whether or not your nightmare is real and asking someone to slap you to see if it’s something that you’ll wake up from. I think that this is especially the case with sudden deaths. My dad was a 55 year old who was quite literally here one moment, and then just gone the next. Poof. Like the worst magic trick of all time. For the record, I think that losing someone unexpectedly and losing someone who was sick are EQUALLY horrible in different ways and that the shock element is always there, no matter what. My point is just that, one day I’m talking to him about his plans to go to New Orleans and questions about my mortgage and a couple of days later I watched as they lowered his casket into the ground so it’s hard to connect the dots when there’s just a leap on the paper. There was no journey of preparedness and there’s no sense of relief because he wasn’t sick. So for me, a high percentage of my mourning thus far has been spent working on accepting that it’s even happened and climbing out of the intense fog of utter shock. I’m not going to lie, the moments where it doesn’t feel real are more tolerable compared to the flood that rushes in like a monsoon when the ‘new reality’ sets in. I never forget that it’s happened but it’s sometimes harder to connect with/truly believe the implications of it. There’s definitely a big part of me that expects his name to pop up on my phone or for him to walk through the door saying ‘sup gang.’ I know that part of that is the natural shock of losing someone (especially prematurely), part of that is the shock of losing someone suddenly and never seeing them sick in a hospital bed with a doctor warning you it’s coming (once again, an equally horrific, but just different looking beast) and part of that is the just reality of losing someone that I think never, ever goes away.
I know that there will always be a part of me that expects him to just walk in the door. That I will always have that instinct to call him when I see something I want to tell him about. But I know that I eventually won’t physically grab the phone as frequently (which I truthfully don’t take comfort in).
Working Through the Trauma
The other thing that I’ve really focused my attention on working through during this initial phase is the trauma of the actual event. The gist of that night is that I was at my friends’ bachelorette party in NYC when I got a call from my sister that my mom found my dad unconscious in a chair and that the ambulance was on its way to their house. Needless to say, I left in the most fear induced panic while simultaneously trying not divulge too many details that could ruin my friend’s special night. I got in an Uber, where I then got a call from my mom that my dad died (the paramedics said it was a heart attack and he was gone before they even got there). That poor Uber driver deserved 10 stars for witnessing what she did. I met up with my sister and husband in Hoboken and we headed down to my parents’ house to be with my mom.
I would say that this traumatic event aspect of it all is the lowest on my totem pole of issues with the entire thing but I also recognize that the healthy thing is to not brush past it and to work through it. If given the chance, I would relive that night a million times over without batting an eye if it meant that I got to have my dad in the future (even without that knowledge at that time). I learned from my accident and pain that I’d rather undergo high level pain for a shorter period of time than chronic lower level pain any day. I would relive getting hit by a car every day for years if I got to live the rest of my life pain free (I obviously have gotten many surgeries with very painful recoveries with this same mentality and desperation). Point is, the trauma of the night of my dad’s death is the least painful of the list of painful elements in the scheme of it all but it was still horrific, of course.
The Most Important Thing I Know About Grieving
Hands down the most important thing that I know about grieving is that there’s no right way to do it. As far as I know, the only way to do it wrong is to NOT do it...to run from it, hide from it, throw a mask over its face or numb yourself in its wake. Like with all truly hard things in life, you just have to BE in it. Sometimes that means putting one foot in front of the other as you walk through heavy, sticky tar and sometimes that means collapsing on the ground and just sitting still in it (or on the floor of your shower, sobbing).
The Other Most Important Thing I Know About Grieving
The other thing that I think you can ‘do right’ is lean into your family. I think that it would be easier to lean back and to retreat. To keep to myself. To not fully and wholly appreciate that everyone’s grief looks, feels and evolves differently. It would be easier to not pull from my depleted energy reserves to be ‘there for’ them as well. It would be easier to not explain to my husband again what sent me into tears in the blink of an eye. But structures aren’t supported by systems that were just built easily. If you lean two cards into one another, they support one another and have a shot at standing up. If they lean away from one another, there’s no hope. So lean in. Go into it with an open heart and open mind. Accept that all of you will have different good days and bad days (or more realistically bad days and worse days) and that sometimes yours won’t match up. Find your common ground and build a shelter from the storm there. Huddle up and rely on each other to keep warm because nothing externally will come close to providing warmth. I know that no shelter can truly combat the fact that grief is an extremely lonely place to reside. I also know that my family (especially my sister, as we stand in the most similar shoes) are the only ones who can come close to ‘getting it’ and that goes a long way in the loneliness department. We love and desperately miss the same person...he was ours and we are forever one another’s. Family is everything to me, even when a huge chunk of mine is missing.
Experiencing Happiness Through The Pain
I haven’t struggled with guilt over feeling happy during the moments that I can (although I can see how people would). When I have had moments of true happiness since, it’s brought this sense of recognition that it feels foreign though. It will feel so good to feel happy but also so foreign that it then makes me sad that feeling happy is such an anomaly nowadays. It’s a rollercoaster. The sound of my laugh feels a little stranger (it’s always been strange haha) and having a sense of euphoria in my body feels both wonderful and foreign at the same time. Granted, I also had major surgery within this time frame and have had a lot of hard, hard cr** related to that and not a ton of fun moments since so I know that robs a lot of the joy (and sleep) from life as well. Laughter and happiness have not been in abundance recently but I haven’t stopped welcoming them. I search for them. I’m dedicated to finding them. I’m opening doors and creating opportunities for them to walk in. I’m clinging to them when I do. I’m verbalizing the feeling and taking a beat to appreciate it. I won’t ever feel guilty for any happiness I find, create, or enjoy because life is for the living and I hella know my dad would agree.
Where I’m at Now
At this point, the fog is starting to lift and I can remember where I put things and what task I was in the middle of doing more so than at first. I feel like I can formulate sentences whereas at first I was sometimes wondering if I’d remember my own name. It felt like a gray fog was spread over my world and it was hard to see what I was doing or remember where I was heading. The fog has begun to lift more and more and although the skies are not clear, I have a better sense of place and can see what is going on around me.
I don’t feel like as much of a fraud in the outside world. At first, I felt like I was walking around with this huge secret and while everyone else was just (seemingly) buying groceries, I was looking like I was buying groceries but really just trying not to start crying in the frozen aisle of the grocery store. And a lot of the time I was crying in that aisle. I frequently still find myself trying not to cry in that aisle (and a billion other places). Spoiler alert: sometimes my attempts fail.
The depression has now swept into the place where anxiety was initially residing (which turns out to be the worse of the 2 options for my waistband). Sleeping was impossible at first and now is qualified as ‘difficult’ (but my pain is majorly to blame as well). I know that I will feel like less blood is gushing out of an open wound in my chest as time continues to tick on. I also know that I won’t ever stop bleeding though. Blood shed for life (even at a slower rate) is just a reality that comes in the ‘after’ of this ‘before & after’ event. And so do tears. I know that one day I will have a whole day where I don’t cry but I haven’t seen one of those days yet.
And yet there is a big part of me that would take this ‘first steps of mourning’ pain any day because they are the days that are closer to when I last saw, talked to, and hugged my dad. They are the days when I can still vividly remember all of his hand gestures, facial expressions, and sayings to a t. Where the colors and clarity of the video reel in my head are in full resolution. But the reel keeps playing new slides and I will keep navigating my way through the fog with the blood on my shirt, the hole in my heart, the everlasting love for my dad, and the compassion for myself as I continue to navigate this path.
If you are in a similar boat, regardless of how much time has passed, I hope that you grant yourself all of the compassion that you need and that you know I’m sending some your way as well. XX, Carly #FromCarlysHeart