Originally posted 8/7/2013, updated 9/21/2016
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind." -Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
My dad passed away almost 4 years ago when I was 26. He died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. Prior to this, the only people in my life who had passed away who I felt remotely close to were my two grandfathers, an uncle, and a great uncle. While I, of course, cared about all of these men and was incredibly sadden by each of their passings, the loss of a parent digs in much deeper, stings much sharper, and alters your world in unimaginable ways. When my dad died, I felt as though I either hadn't seen or hadn't paid attention to many accounts of grieving the death of a parent in your 20s. This lack of information spurred me to write about my experience and to share the following things I'd learned about myself and others from encountering my father's death at a comparatively young age.
Grief is not a perfect, linear process. After the first few days of barely sleeping or eating and bursting into tears at the slightest remembrance, I asked myself, "When does this end? When can I feel okay again?" I fooled myself into thinking that if I went through the steps, if I followed the stages, I would come out on the other end as a whole, smiling, fatherless girl. Yes, my dad died, but my future is bright! Instead, everyday is different. Somedays, I'm happy and productive and I think about my dad with a smile on my face. Other days, I wake up from having a dream about my dad and sulk all day. Somedays, I'm moody as hell. Other days, I nearly forget that my father died at all. Somedays, I'm angry that people who are twice my age still have their fathers. Other days, I silently cry at my desk at work while I hear a coworker talk to his father on the phone. Yes, I cry less and generally feel better about the whole thing than I did during month 1, but it's not a perfect, logical, point A to point B progression. It comes in waves; sometimes with tsunami-like force, but usually more like the daily tides.
Life does not stop. While asking myself when the painful grieving process will be over, I also asked myself when I could do normal things again. I thought that I could compartmentalize the grief. If I kept it in its own box, it wouldn't bleed over into the rest of my life and so, when I returned to the rest of my life, it would be exactly the same as it was before. When and only when I stopped crying all.the.time., I could then resume my life. While people are generally sympathetic to your loss, your bills still need to be paid, your friends still want to see you, your bathroom is only getting grosser, and the days keep flying by. If you wait until you feel 100% back to normal, you will sit out the rest of your life. Once I realized that I needed to create a new normal instead of wait for my old normal to return (which it never will), I placed pieces of my life back. I started reading again. I watched a movie. I started introducing my routines back into my life. I allowed myself to date again. Life stops for no one, no matter how much pain you may be in, no matter how much you wished you could stop time so you wouldn't have to live your life without your dad to share it with. Life goes on.
You learn who your true friends are. After being woken up by the phone call from my brother telling me that my dad was being rushed to the hospital, after the initial shock, after the first shouted "no," after the first cup of tear tainted tea, I reached out to my closest friends to put them on high alert, hoping that my messages wouldn't put a jinx on my dad. After the second call from my brother, starting with the dreaded, "Sarah, I'm so sorry," after the shouting of the repeated and pathetic "no," after the uncontrollable crying and shaking, after the shouting of the repeated and pathetic "why," after the dumbstruck silence and emotional exhaustion, I reached out again. After their brief moments of silence and processing, my phone blew up. Friends called me crying before they even heard my first whimper. My friends flocked to my dad's memorial service like it was a pilgrimage to Mecca. They came unasked- it was a given to them. When things needed doing, I could barely put the words together before I had multiple hands reaching out to help. When I needed to vent, I had an inexhaustible audience. When I couldn't remember to eat, my sister in law fed me. When I couldn't stand, my brother carried me. When I couldn't compose myself, my brother had unyielding resolve. When I couldn't find a light at the end of the tunnel, my brother lit a candle.
Unfortunately, there's a flip side to finding out who is really on your side. My dad's girlfriend turned out to be a thief, a liar, and an incredibly weak woman who was promptly thrown out of my dad's house and karma gave a good ass beating to.
No one can say anything to make you feel better. My first reaction to people telling me they were sorry for my loss was to say, "It's okay." My second reaction was, "I hope you never experience this." My loss was not okay and almost everyone will have to deal with losing a parent at some point in their lives- what silly things to think. I guess in some weird, backwards way, I was trying to make them feel better for feeling bad. Finally, I came to terms with just replying with a simple thank you. After talking to friends who sat in stunned silence when I told them how I was coping, after writing emails in the middle of the night about how I was feeling and receiving only a few words in response, instead of getting angry at their apparent disinterest or apathy, I realized that my friends were at a loss for what to say because they have no idea what it is like to lose a parent. The vast majority of my friends, and none of my closest friends, have not yet had to go through what I am currently going through. Even hearing stories about your dad or hearing how much he talked about you to other people aren't very comforting because you can't help saying to yourself, "That's nice, but it would be way nicer to have my dad alive and still creating stories and talking up his children." Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle describes this situation perfectly: "People who are grieving walk with death, every waking moment. When the rest of us dread that we'll somehow remind them of death's existence, we are missing their reality ... A rendezvous with death, for them, was waking up each morning without their [father]." Despite the nonexistence of the right words, someone ignoring the fact that your dad is dead is way worse than them saying something that does not provide comfort. Sharing memories, asking questions, letting the griever grieve allows the parent to live on in the only way he or she can now.
I feel like an orphan most days. My mother still hasn't talked to me about my dad dying. She has little to no idea how I've been dealing with it all. To be honest, somedays, it's easier to pretend that she's dead too. My brother, his wife, and my friends have been absolutely wonderful, but, because I am not currently talking to my mother, did not have a significant other at the time my dad died, and live so far away from my closest friends and family, I felt, and occasionally still feel, incredibly alone in all of this. Mourning hangs on you like a shadow during your day to day movements. You don't have to talk about it or even spill tears to feel it. It's just there and can fill a room if you let it. Even though my brother and I shared our father and share our grief, he can experience that grief with his wife. He can be, or at least should be, happy knowing that his wife got to know her father in law for a few years and their son got to play with and be held by his pop pop. I don't have those luxuries. My father will not be there for many of the milestones I'm yet to experience- getting married, having kids, buying my first home. The man I'm to marry can't ask my dad for my hand in marriage; my father can't walk me down the aisle; if I have children, they will never know their maternal grandpa; my dad can't show me how to repair things around the house. When older people who have lost a parent reach out to me and tell me they understand, I appreciate the sentiment, but they can't possibly understand the full depth of what I'm experiencing. Unless you are a 20something, single female who has a bad relationship with your mother and you recently lost your father, I just don't think anyone can really understand this.
Dating is really hard. My first concern was that the guys I would start dating after my dad died wouldn't understand and would feel uncomfortable when I started talking about my dad or if I was having a rough time dealing with his death. They would think I was broken and give up on me. That fear has mostly been allayed as I've found most men I've dated handle the situation well. While they don't often understand what it's like to lose a parent, they understand that things are going to bother me sometimes and that all I need is patience and open arms. I felt more insecure than I felt in years and it caused me to react/overreact to things that I would have otherwise let roll off my shoulders. Because my mother was never very affectionate, reassuring, or encouraging, losing my dad meant losing the biggest figure in my life who told me without pause that he's proud of me, that he thinks I'm beautiful, that he thinks I'm great. This absence caused me to seek constant affection; second guess silences, conversations, and actions; feel incredibly sad during family gatherings; and generally jump to the worst possible conclusion if there's a sliver of a doubt. While I rarely acted out or started fights because of these things, I let it dominate my thinking and deflate me to the point of tears. Most guys, if they were worth their salt, let me get it out of my system, but built me back up with the truth- that they think I'm great too.
Paperwork and possessions. In the midst of trying to mourn my dad's death, my brother and I had to deal with an enormous amount of paperwork. Death is a very messy business. Since my dad was not married and he did not have a will, my brother and I had to go to court to become the legal administrators of my dad's estate. We had to scramble to find account statements, passwords, assets. We logged countless hours on the phone explaining that our dad died and we need access, we need closure, we need our peace. We had to go through my dad's possessions, trying to decide what to keep, what to toss, what to give away, what to sell. We had to remember to pay his bills on top of our own bills every month. We had to try to sell a house that was a day's drive and a day's flight, respectively, from either of us. Thankfully, my dad did have life insurance and that made many, many things much easier, but I never in a million years thought that the process would be that stressful or drawn out. That is the one thing that took me most by surprise because I had never been that close to anyone who passed away before.
You learn you're not the only one who thinks your dad was awesome. You also learn how much your dad would not shut up about you. Countless strangers have told me, "Your dad loved you very, very much. He was so proud of you." The stories we heard and continue to hear about my dad have confirmed what I've known all along: my dad was one of a kind. He will be missed by many, many people.